Phoebe Tonkin and Flickerfest go way back. Over the years, the actor has attended countless sessions at the prestigious short film festival, held annually in Sydney’s Bondi Beach.
“I have very fond memories,” she tells Vogue. Not only of watching incredible short films, many of which have gone on to global acclaim, award nominations and even a few Oscar wins. But it was also at Flickerfest that Tonkin first connected with some of the most important people in her life. “It was actually [there that] I met Teresa Palmer, Lara Worthington and Xavier Samuel, who are still my buds to this day,” Tonkin says. It’s no wonder, then, that she feels so “honoured” that she is screening a short film of her own on the opening night of the 2021 festival.
On Friday, 22 January, Tonkin’s directorial debut Furlough will have its Australian premiere. After years as an actor, both at home and abroad on series including Westworld and The Originals, Tonkin knew she was ready to step behind the camera. Which is what she did in 2019, penning a screenplay for a short film following two teenage sisters as they sneak out for a night on the town and returning to Australia to shoot the project later that year. The result is raw and intimate, a coming-of-age story that doesn’t shy away from all the “angst,” as Tonkin puts it, of growing up.
Vogue catches up with Tonkin about making her directorial debut, working with the female-centric production company Dollhouse Pictures—founded by Rose Byrne, Jessica Carrera, Krew Boylan, Gracie Otto and Shannon Murphy—and how she drafted in her mum to help out behind-the-scenes.
You wrote and directed Furlough in 2019, after a breakup and in a year when you turned 30 and moved cities… What was that time in your life like?
Phoebe Tonkin: “I was really looking for other creative outlets besides just acting. I have always had a vivid imagination and loved the storytelling aspect of being an actress. I had been working on a different short film for a few years, a dystopian sci-fi cult esque film that didn’t really feel achievable with my limited resources, so Furlough was born out of dipping my toes into directing in a more realistic way.”
Where did the idea for Furlough come from? What story did you want to tell?
PT: “The characters and worlds I write always portray women in a very specific way. The initial idea I was working on dealt with really rough, flawed, messy women. As an actress I get very sick of reading ‘She’s strong and powerful’ on my character breakdowns. There was something fun and dangerous about the protagonists in Furlough. A lot of coming of age films show the boys being reckless and pushing boundaries; I wanted to explore the female angst of that age too, especially in the context of what the characters are coming to terms with. I was really inspired by Luci Schroder’s short film Slapper, and Wasp by Andrea Arnold. Anything Andrea Arnold to be honest—she would be one of my biggest inspirations. And Luci is someone I would love to work with one day too.”
You’ve worked with some incredible filmmakers, and count Penguin Bloom director Glendyn Ivin as a mentor. What are the big pieces of advice that he has given you?
PT: “Glendyn is the GOAT. Not only is he a spectacular director, his on set energy is unparalleled. Coming from a network TV background and working [with him] on Safe Harbour, I was reminded why I loved acting and being on set. There’s an impulsiveness that I learned from Glendyn. A lot of trusting your gut. At the end of the day, making art with your friends is one of life’s biggest luxuries, and I set out to make Furlough to emulate the joy I felt working on Safe Harbour.”
So you have the idea, you write the film… What did you do next? How do you go about getting a short film made?
PT: “I immediately reached out to Jessica Carrera, on the off chance she would be open to producing it with me, and thankfully she said yes. I am so inspired by her and her production company Dollhouse Pictures. Elevating and amplifying creative female voices is so important, and we just were on the same page from day one.”
You made this movie on a small budget. How did you manage it? What were some of the most creative ways you kept the film under budget?
PT: “Oh so many! My mum Jane and my godmother Jenny were caterers for starters! They were up at five each day making dozens of salads and sandwiches. We shot the film in the same place we were all sleeping, so for five days we all slept in bunk beds like it was school camp.”
What was it like making the movie? What are your fondest memories?
PT: “My fondest memories are being on set. The party scene in particular was such a memorable experience, it was our first day, we had 20 background actors, not much time, and we shot the scene in one take, from the car to the dance floor. It was definitely a wild introduction to directing, I really felt like I jumped straight into the deep end. But thankfully our incredible [director of photography] Gio was so cool and calm, and we managed to get so many amazing candid moments from our actors.”
What was something that surprised you most about directing?
PT: “The collaboration. As an actress you’re sort of separated from the whole creative process. Sometimes it feels like you’re just a warm prop without a lot of input. But with this, [I loved] being able to share ideas with everyone and get feedback and truly collaborate all together to not only make a great film but have a really fun, inspiring experience as well.”
It’s exciting that the film will have it’s Australian premiere at Flickerfest! How much do you wish you could be there…
PT: “A LOT! I am very sad that I won’t be there, it will be the first in-person screening of Furlough, as all the other festivals last year were online.”
You must be missing Australia a lot right now. What’s your dream Australian summer day?
PT: “It’s killing me. I am very very homesick. I miss waking up and going swimming, good lattes, boxes of mangoes. My dream summer day would be a day down at Balmoral swimming and jumping off the pier and lunch at The Boathouse.”
Published January 20, 2021
by Hannah-Rose Lee