‘Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt)’ director Monica Zanetti on breaking down casting barriers

The writer-director of the first Australian feature to open Sydney Mardi Gras Film Festival talks telling LGBTQ+ stories with sensitivity

When Monica Zanetti speaks, there’s a sense of unwavering self-determination steadying her voice. It’s no doubt a trait that helped the NSW-based filmmaker make Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt), which secured a significant milestone earlier this year: it was the first Australian feature to open Sydney’s Mardi Gras Film Festival in its 27-year history.

The film has since screened at Melbourne International Film Festival, Florence Queer Festival and Brisbane International Festival, among a long (and growing) list of many others. It follows type-A personality Ellie (Sophie Hawkshaw) as she works up the courage to ask her classmate Abbie (Zoe Terakes) to go to the Year 12 formal with her. When Ellie comes out to her mother Erica (Marta Dusseldorp) her gay, deceased Aunt Tara (Julia Billington) manifests, professing to be Ellie’s fairy godmother. It’s funny, confronting and touching, all at once.

Zanetti originally wrote the story as a play, which was warmly received by Sydney’s inner west in 2017; a 36-day crowdfunding campaign in 2018 helped raise a $50,000 budget to turn it into a film. A well-balanced mix of romantic comedy and family drama, Ellie & Abbie also resurfaces an ugly moment in Australian history: the 1989 ‘cleansing march’ led by the preacher and NSW politician Fred Nile. Dedicated to Zanetti’s gay uncles – or, as she affectionately calls them, her ‘guncles’ – this film is a tribute to those who came before us.

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With NME, Zanetti talks distribution and representation in the Australian film industry and about the families who are still fighting for justice for their LGBTQ+ loved ones. Warning: mild spoilers ahead.

Did you uncover anything that surprised you while you were doing research for this film?

“Uncovering the Fred Nile ‘cleansing march’, that was a surprise in itself. I think so much of our storytelling about LGBT+ history in Australia does revolve around Mardi Gras, which has a very important history, but there were so many other movements and so many other rallies that led to where we’ve gotten to now.”

Is Aunt Tara’s death inspired by a true story?

“It’s inspired by a collection of true stories. There is a long history [of LGBT+ hate crimes] in this country, of cases only just being reopened, cases like the Bondi Cliffs. And so I took elements of real stories and real people and created a fictional character who can kind of encompass that part of our history.”

How do you balance telling such a sensitive story without it becoming trauma porn?

“I think it was knowing that you can tell a story about tragedy that has caused real pain without having to show the victim in that pain; as in [without] having to show what has happened to them. I think I’m quite a sensitive person, and so whenever I find that there’s violence towards… I guess, to use the example of violence towards queer people on screen, I find that very, very hard to watch. And I want to know: Did you need to show that? Is the pain that that is going to cause people worth it for the story?

“There were times that I did have a look at seeing if I should put [how Aunt Tara died] in, if I should allude to it more. The times I was doing that were based on notes from people in the industry who weren’t necessarily queer. It didn’t feel right to me. There are so many families out there that lived through something like that, that are still trying to fight for justice. I felt no reason to put those families through that.”

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Ellie and Abbie and Ellies Dead Aunt director Monica Zanetti interview
Sophie Hawkshaw and Zoe Terakes in ‘Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt)’. Credit: Press

I read you had trouble with funding bodies when you put forth a 50 per cent LGBTQ+ cast. Have you felt an undercurrent of filmmakers challenging the funding barriers to hire diverse casts, or do you still have to grind to hire the cast you want?

“Grind. To be fair, the ones that were like, ‘Oh no, you can’t have a cast like that’ were the distributors. There are a few major ones in Australia and they were the ones that said, ‘We absolutely want to make a film like that. We want to be making more diverse stories.’ But when I said, ‘This is the kind of cast I want to use’ – they’d kind of be like, ‘Oh no, we’ve been thinking you should rewrite the mum as a dad, because it’s much easier to get an actor in his 50s to sell a film than it is to get a woman in her 40s.’”

Ah, I see.

“It’s just that kind of rhetoric, which is so incorrect and doesn’t give audiences credit. I was having these meetings at the time that Crazy Rich Asians was in cinemas. People were flocking to that film, and it had nothing to do with a big name being attached; it was because it was so well-written and funny and brilliant. So that was when I knew I’d have to make it myself and show them and then get their money the other way. And so I did.

“And then I met our wonderful distributors, Acadia, who are really trying to change the landscape of the Australian industry; they’re choosing great films to distribute and are passionate about genuine diversity, so that is really great.”

Ellie and Abbie and Ellies Dead Aunt director Monica Zanetti interview
Monica Zanetti on set of ‘Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt)’. Credit: Press

There’s this self-perpetuating cycle: underrepresented actors can’t build their profile if they aren’t being given the roles.

“Exactly. And Marta had been in three of the top Australian television shows that were on all at once [Jack Irish, Janet King and A Place To Call Home]. To look at that and be like ‘What you should do is rewrite the role for a dad’ is so insulting. I couldn’t quite believe it.

“So I was like: I can either make a version of this film with these companies attached that’s gonna make me feel cheap and like I’m not making what I want to make, or I can go and crowdfund it and do it the incredibly difficult way just to make a point [laughs]. And while we had far less money to make it, it’s [the story that] I wanted to make, so it feels worth it now. Although there were definitely some moments where it was incredibly hard.”

Having succeeded in creating something under those circumstances, that must be a good feeling. It’s like you’ve jumped over a few fences.

“[Laughs] I shoved them out of the way.”

Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt) will screen at select cinemas from November 19, and will be available to stream on iTunes, Google Play and YouTube Movies from December 2

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