Many moons ago - before sitting down for a coffee in a public space felt novel and possibly audacious - I met with Melbourne-based filmmaker and photographer, Dannika Horvat, to chat about her work. What transpired was a galvanising and poignant conversation that feels more relevant now, amidst a global pandemic, than it did before.
Pore over our chat for some ideas on how to remain active and stimulated during these times…or why you don’t necessarily need to. And trust that Dannika is a reliable source: In 2016 her graduate film, ‘The Summer of ABC Burns’, received an abundance of accolades, nationally and internationally, including Best Director at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival. She now has two works in development: a drama/comedy series with Amanda Higgs, funded by Film Victoria, and her debut feature film with Big & Little Films.
[This interview took place July 2019]
Considering all your successes since graduating, I’m curious to hear about your work ethic and how you incorporate writing into your daily practice?
This year I’ve tried to make sure I write something everyday. And it doesn’t always happen. The start of the year, I was really good at it! I had a little practice called “Morning Pages”, which is super cheesy…it’s a stream of consciousness. I would just write two pages of absolute crap. It’s like wiping the cob webs- I would never read it back; it was more to get my head into a state…because writing is very…out of body. I don’t want to be in the room when I’m writing.
Do you need a specific environment in order to write? Do you have any rituals?
This will sound cheesy… if I’m writing I have to make sure my room is clean, I light a candle, some incense, I put on some classical music, or binaural beats or whale sounds. I’m a BIG fan of whale sounds.
You’re the first person I’ve met who listens to whale sounds!
Whale sounds is my JAM. They’re melodic but not melodic enough to distract me. I also have things I play with on my desk: squishy balls and stuff. If I’ve got a roadblock, I’ll change what I’m writing on – I’ll put the laptop aside and get a big notebook that has no lines in it and it just un-inhibits me. Or I use cards if I’m getting into the nitty gritty structure stuff.
…Maybe I think too much about what I need to get into the process (laughs)…But sometimes these things help remind you where you’re going. It’s just a little nudge in the right direction.
"…It’s a full time job. You’ve got to balance the stuff that you do to get paid, the stuff that you do that makes your career advance, and the stuff that you do that is you, as a person, living your life."
Do you find that as your own boss, day-to-day life can feel transactional, like: how much am I getting out of this? How much time can I spend with friends? Like you can’t just take pleasure in doing nothing …
Totally. But I think that I’m learning to cut myself some slack, in that, if I’m feeing burnt out and it’s like, “oh, I should be doing something today!”, I tell myself that it is okay to hang out with your friends…for no reason! And I try to tell myself that, being a writer, you use everything. So even if I feel I don’t have the capacity to write today, and I just want to watch TV, if I watch things that are feeding my practice, and engage with it in that way, that’s okay. Even if it’s trashy reality TV. It’s still a study of people. It’s still an insight into our current culture.
…It’s a full time job. You’ve got to balance the stuff that you do to get paid, the stuff that you do that makes your career advance, and the stuff that you do that is you, as a person, living your life.
Do you think that, as a filmmaker, it’s helpful to get a part time job related to your practice?
Whatever works for you. My favourite job EVER was working at a supermarket. I loved it so much because I had incredible access to people and that really fed my writing. The lead actress in my short, Triple Swear – Jaz – she was a regular customer! But I also gained lots working at Matchbox Productions. I saw how the industry works and made great connections!
I think any job can be useful… Working at a call centre I would talk to people and ask them what they think about the local parks in their area and in between calls I’d be like, “so this character- what would she be like?” Seriously: any jobs where you have access to people, but like, ANY jobs – you use them.
Right, and you don’t need to be so transactional with how you spend your time, because ultimately being curious is just as productive…
I think what I’m realising now is that, last year — when I had no idea what I was doing and I felt like I was lost, and things weren’t happening — I was actually planting all these seeds, and only this year those seeds are starting to sprout. It’s a slow process and you have to mind the gap. Because there is a gap. You do something and then you have to be like, “oh, well, nothing’s happening immediately, but don’t worry, just keep learning and just keep doing what you do,” and eventually you will be able to say to yourself: “oh, I’m the person who did that thing.” And you slowly get to know more people… You slowly make a name for yourself….and you also just make friends! All the connections I have in this industry come from genuine friendships.
"Last year -- when I had no idea what I was doing and I felt like I was lost, and things weren’t happening -- I was actually planting all these seeds, and only this year those seeds are starting to sprout. It’s a slow process and you have to mind the gap. Because there is a gap."
I think that’s so important…
Totally! You can see right through somebody who’s like “I want to get to know you because you seem like the right person to know.” It’s like, yuck! Ew! That’s not how we should live our lives! The people you will end up working with are the people who you just vibe with and think, “omg, you’re so cool”. Like me and Amanda Higgs, we’ve got this project in development because, basically, she saw my Instagram and said, “I really like your voice. I like the way you see your community.”
Your Instagram feed is full of film photographs of friends and colleagues. How does your community impact your work?
I just… I adore my friends and family and my housemates. They’re the reason that I do anything, because they make me believe that I can do these things. When I think about the thing that is the most important to me in my life, it’s my relationships. It often frightens me thinking about how I might have to sacrifice these things later, if I get busier… I think you have to strike a balance, and just take a fucking load off, and you’ll be fine. There’s this song that I love: Vienna by Billy Joel-
No STOP. That is my anthem! (we briefly sing in unison)
It’s my favourite song, it makes me cry.
Are you a Capricorn?!
No, I’m a Sagittarius.
(She laughs) … yeah, that makes sense! You as an actor, or me as a writer: you need to draw from life experience, and so you need that balance. Because you can be too green. You might have an incredible perception of things and people, but if you haven’t experienced things, you’ve got no story to mine… and if you’re not mining your own stories, in your own well, but instead you’re mining someone else’s stories, it always shows.
"No matter what I experience, I’ll use it. I’m mining for stories all the time."
If my friends are going through a really hard time, I’m always like, “the BEST songs that are ever written are heartbreak songs!” I don’t know if it’s a fucked up way to think about life, but no matter what I experience, I’ll use it. I’m mining for stories all the time.
I think that’s the way to be.
I think it’s the way you tell truthful stories. And that’s the most important thing. It’s not like, “what’s the crazy plot that’s going to keep someone engaged?! What will keep them hanging on the end of their seats? What’s topical?” It’s like- no. What’s true? Worry about truth.
So, not only are you a filmmaker and photographer, but you have also released your own music. Is being a ‘jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none’ something you worry about?
I used to be really embarrassed about the whole music thing. I thought that people would think I wasn’t focused. But the way that I see it now, is: I am a person who tells stories, and I tell stories in different mediums, and, if anything, I think that’s a strength.
"I’ve got a lot of things I can’t help but do."
I’m lucky in that my photography feeds directly into my writing practice; I use my photos in my pitch documents and stuff that I send out. And I also use my photos as references for my work; they help me build tonal look books. So at first I was a little embarrassed about it, but now I’m like- fucking own it. It doesn’t matter. I’ve got a lot of things I can’t help but do.
Particularly on Instagram I feel like you have to be like: “This. Is. What. I. Am”. I used to fret over silly things, like- does it lesser you if you have a slash next to what you do?
I don’t think so. I think that if people think that way, it’s pretty close minded. And really… I don’t think people actually think that way. I just think it shows that you’re a really driven person. And I think it shows how incredibly hardworking you are. Not necessarily in my case, cause what I do is pretty self involved. It’s like, “I sing songs about my own life and I take photos of my friends!”. I’m currently living with three girls who all work in health and I’m the only one who’s in a creative field. I’m used to living with other creatives, but it’s so nice, that perspective: they’re fucking doing things for the world.
Keeps you grounded !
Yeah, oh man! You gotta stay grounded! That ties back into the family and friends stuff. Those relationships – that’s the most important stuff of life I think. And also – that’s why people tell stories.
One last question: what would be your advice to those trying to break into the film industry?
I was in a really lucky situation in that, after my masters, my tutor told me about the job at Matchbox, and he told me to go for it. So I think my advice is: say yes to things.
"Don’t worry about working in the industry right away! Just do things and make things and you will eventually find your way in."
But also, don’t worry about working in the industry right away! Just do things and make things and you will eventually find your way in. I don’t think there’s any rush to be in the industry. If you feel powerless, you can make a film. Like Nikki making a film in her back yard with you and Jess- and then that went to MIFF!
And if you’re embarrassed about working at a supermarket then – shut up. Because you shouldn’t be. Because people need groceries. And if you’re going to be the best goddamn check out chick that anyone has ever seen, then take pride in that.
And also, don’t be afraid to reach out to people. The worst thing that will happen is that they wont reply. Everyone is busy. But only do that if you genuinely just want people’s advice. Don’t go if you want to sell yourself, because people see right through that shit. It’s gotta be genuine. Do your thing and you’ll be fine.