A new take on country life

Kojonup's Bec Bignell, to unveil web series - Homespun

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Actor, writer and film-maker Bec Bignell (left) and singer Celeste Clabburn, from Victorian band The Sunny Cowgirls, play best friends George and Paul in the seven-part series Homespun.

Actor, writer and film-maker Bec Bignell (left) and singer Celeste Clabburn, from Victorian band The Sunny Cowgirls, play best friends George and Paul in the seven-part series Homespun.

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Kojonup's Bec Bignell, to unveil web series - Homespun

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Click go the shears boys, click, click, click

Wide is his blow and his hands move slick

The ringer looks around, the rouseys now a girl

Country life's a-changing, give a new tale a whirl

FROM the pantheon of Australia's great true story-tellers and balladeers, a new generation of Australian creatives is emerging to tell the tale of the nation's bush life and instead of pen and paper, they are turning to film, photography and the internet to share a modern rural tale.

Among the busiest proponents of the push is Western Australian actor, writer and film-maker Bec Bignell, who hails from a family farm at Kojonup and is about to unveil her modern take on the country story in a new seven-part web series, Homespun.

The series - and a companion feature-length film for regional screenings - was made on a microbudget in WA over the past two years.

The project brought together more than 100 mainly Western Australia farmers and creatives as cast and crew.

It has been picked up by a distributor, with an announcement due very soon and a view to a wide-scale release this year.

Guests at the CineFestOz Festival in Albany, Busselton and Bunbury were recently treated to early sessions of the film - which sold out - and Ms Bignell is planning a big party and launch of the series in Kojonup prior to the release.

Actor, writer and film-maker Bec Bignell hails from a family farm at Kojonup and is about to unveil her modern take on the country story in a new seven-part web series, Homespun. Photo by Angie Coote.

Actor, writer and film-maker Bec Bignell hails from a family farm at Kojonup and is about to unveil her modern take on the country story in a new seven-part web series, Homespun. Photo by Angie Coote.

Ms Bignell said in Homespun she wanted to create something where rural people could tell the stories of regional Australia in an authentic way and to build a platform for creative country people - its storytellers - to show their skills to a mainstream audience.

"I wanted to go into the creative zone and show the potential of creativity in the regions,'' Ms Bignell said.

"I believe it is even more vibrant in the country because people are literally surrounded by the bush and their lifestyle gives over to that kind of creative experience.

"A lot of people, if they are on farms, spend a lot of time thinking because they are doing circle work in paddocks, or in shearing teams that have long bus rides to the shed.

"They are very creative people and they never get the spotlight put on them and I figured that I just needed to do it."

Filming Homespun as a web series, with each episode 12-15 minutes long, meant Ms Bignell had full control to "make it how I wanted it'', could make it accessible to regional audiences and could experiment with different ways of storytelling.

She said she chose to move on from the conspicuous country cinematic themes - which usually centred on a comedic caricature or stereotype, or the dark underbelly of rural isolation of a Wolf Creek-style horror.

Ms Bignell arrived, instead, on 'dramady', or a drama with comedic elements.

 In a scene from Homespun, George and Paul organise a banquet in the paddock to show city film producer Stevie a different side of country hospitality. It makes for a colourful procession of characters the extras were all locals. Photos by Astrid Volzke and Rosie Henderson.

In a scene from Homespun, George and Paul organise a banquet in the paddock to show city film producer Stevie a different side of country hospitality. It makes for a colourful procession of characters the extras were all locals. Photos by Astrid Volzke and Rosie Henderson.

"Often you hear things such as 'the Australian story is so limited in its regional outlook' because you get these caricatures or stereotypes that are centred on the comedic stuff or the really dark stuff and you don't find anything in between,'' Ms Bignell said.

"But even in the fringe parts of regional areas there are incredible characters and amazing stories, who never get the time of day.

"That was the one thing that I was really interested in - knowing so many storytellers, who are just natural storytellers in their environment and then joining the dots by understanding these people are never going to get the chance to express themselves on a wide platform, so we need to be able to cut through, to create the platform to show the diversity of people who exist in these environments and also the modern experience.''

A life-long story-teller herself, Ms Bignell was always ambitious and realised at a young age that the opportunities to fulfil her creative aspirations would not be available if she stayed at home.

She moved to Perth and ultimately to Sydney - where she has worked in film, theatre, TV and media for the past 12 years, including as a partnership executive at the ABC.

Ms Bignell founded Rural Room, an online creative agency for rural photographers and writers to share "stories from the sticks" and manages a national network of regional media creatives, the Rural Room Media Stringers.

She was associate producer of the Visible Women series (Ripe, March 2019 ), in 2018, she was named in the Australian Financial Review's 100 women of influence and she is now working on the film adaption of Tim Winton's novel Blueback, which was filmed in Bremer Bay.

Ms Bignell said it was relatively easy for urban film and TV makers to go into country communities to make documentaries and conduct interviews, but the work could lack the subtlety of modern country life - even from those with rural upbringings and good intentions.

Local shearers Geoffrey Shane Marsh (left), Brendon Boyle, Dayna Dixon, James Read and Nathaniel Tunui (sitting) discuss a scene with actors Bec Bignell, Celeste Clabburn, Sammy Smith and director Socratis Otto.

Local shearers Geoffrey Shane Marsh (left), Brendon Boyle, Dayna Dixon, James Read and Nathaniel Tunui (sitting) discuss a scene with actors Bec Bignell, Celeste Clabburn, Sammy Smith and director Socratis Otto.

She was aware of this risk for herself and for the past three years she has been commuting between Sydney and Kojonup, lately with a new baby in tow, to restore her country voice.

"People out in the field doing lots and lots of work in film and television may have had a regional upbringing and experience, but they are not living there, they are not understanding the nuance,'' Ms Bignell said.

"When I started the project I was living in Sydney and I thought I have to get back to my roots, so I am not making these assumptions myself, so I migrated back to the family farm.

"That's also why I started Rural Room - I needed to be kept honest and attached to the experience.

"Living between Sydney and Kojonup has been an amazing experience, people just can't get their heads around it - it is really hardcore straddling these two very different places."

As well as creating the series, Ms Bignell plays Homespun's main character, rouseabout Georgina 'George' Mcpherson, who loves her job, her shearing team and her life in the country.

In a case of film mirroring life, George and her best friend Pauline 'Paul' Nicholls - played by Celeste Clabburn from the Victorian band The Sunny Cowgirls - are cast in an fictional 'Regional Australia' series and want to up the ante on the theme by showing the dirt under their fingernails.

But the big city network executives - who have commissioned the series - have other ideas and want to stick closer to the cliches: think the pathos of How the Billy Boils, or high melodrama of McLeod's Daughters or, even, A Farmer Wants a Wife.

Director of photography Patrick Harris captures some of the action for Homespun, which was filmed in Kojonup.

Director of photography Patrick Harris captures some of the action for Homespun, which was filmed in Kojonup.

Caught in the middle is producer Stevie, a city girl with big ambitions and good intentions to create something new - away from the often-exploitative drought story to one "about salt-of-the-earth women blazing a new trail in the bush''.

Ms Bignell's Homespun is fresh, edgy, beautifully shot and full of vignettes of country life and it has plenty of sheep and horses, big hats, flies, characters - and lots of straight talking.

An immersive, rocking soundtrack was created mostly with regional bands and musicians, including WA's Main River Band, Body Boys and Pipeline Band, in a partnership with West Australian Music.

It also has a decidedly non-linear progression, relates stories from different character's perspectives, values moments and the live action is interspersed with beautiful animation by Rosie Henderson, from Esperance, which adds a softer, folksiness to its edgier dialogue.

"There is a very different structure, it is more in the moment,'' Ms Bignell said.

"We put dramatic moments up against light-hearted stuff.

"We did this very deliberately because I wanted this to be a prototype for things that I can do on a large scale.

"And I think I will have the opportunity to do that now, after this."

Ultimately, George, like Ms Bignell, gets to tell the story she wants to tell.

"Autobiographical her mission is very much mine,'' Ms Bignell said of her well-drawn character.

"But her character is very different.

"Also the friendship she has with Paul is very authentic and it is beautiful and for me I think female friendships in the country are under-explored.

"We always look at mateship and think of men, but there is a beautiful camaraderie among the women and that never gets explored.

"I wanted to show that and contrast it with the difficult work relationship that was happening with the (TV network) women in the city."

While the Homespun cast has a familiar face - actress Heather Mitchell plays executive Pamela - and it was directed by well-known actor Socratis Otto, Homespun's real stars are its cast of first-time actors drawn from the paddocks, sheds and communities of the Great Southern.

Ms Bignell estimates 90 per cent of the film's budget - which was backed by Screenwest, Lotterywest, Telstra, Australian Wool Innovation and the Shire of Kojonup - was spent on its Western Australian cast, crew and the Perth-based post-production team.

She said the actors faced the double challenge of stepping out of their familiar lifestyles and entrenched personalities - for which they were locally known - in a short time-frame.

But the local casting ensured the series was fresh and interesting to watch and that it tapped into a largely unmet need that still exists for authentic, Australian country characters.

Bec Bignell (left) and Celeste Clabburn in character and on location in Homespun.

Bec Bignell (left) and Celeste Clabburn in character and on location in Homespun.

"These people had two weeks, or sometimes not even that long, to learn their lines and perform at this level and they live in a regional, rural setting,'' Ms Bignell said.

"These creative people exist and we need to look for them.

"I think storytelling has become very exclusive, particularly in the mainstream.

"And audiences are craving these authentic, bush stories.

"They are so keen to reconnect with that bush hero - but also in a modern way."

Another important Homespun star is the Great Southern landscape.

The series was filmed in December 2019, from a Hollywood-style set created on the Bignell family's wheat and sheep farm and with props and storage pulled from around the community.

"I was hell-bent on shooting it in December and it was a heatwave in 2019,'' Ms Bignell said.

"I wanted to get the Great Southern in that crisp, beautiful golden time of year, where it has this beauty that I don't think we have really seen in Australian film and TV.

"We see a lot of the red dirt and the outback, this region has a different feeling."

Skinner, played by Sammy Smith, entertains the crowd at a banquet in a paddock which George and Paul set up to show their take on country hospitality.

Skinner, played by Sammy Smith, entertains the crowd at a banquet in a paddock which George and Paul set up to show their take on country hospitality.

And while the landscape is romantically depicted, Ms Bignell hopes her characters are not - she wanted to change up the narrative, including putting rural women front and centre.

"Homespun draws on the idea that people wrongly assume that a farmer looks like that advertisement that you see in Woolies, but I see my mum and dad, they could not look more different to the kind of image that is presented,'' Ms Bignell said.

"We have noticed because the image of rural Australia hasn't advanced, it has also meant that regional Australian see themselves as these romantic stereotypes that have been created for them.

"That is also concerning because it doesn't represent it correctly.''

Ms Bignell said she was sick of regional dramas where the payoff is that the "girl goes to the city for a better life''.

"I wanted them to stay in their community,'' she said.

"I wanted to show their community is vibrant enough that they didn't want to leave and I really didn't want it to be a romance.

"In a lot of cases, there are so many more interesting things to delve into, in the ambition that people have around the regions."

Kojonup locals Jacinta Kuypers and Olivia Thorn were among a huge local contingent who made up the cast and crew.

Kojonup locals Jacinta Kuypers and Olivia Thorn were among a huge local contingent who made up the cast and crew.

Ms Bignell said she was still in awe of the cast's amazing performances.

"But at the end of the day, everyone has the capacity to be an actor because we all tell stories,'' she said.

"So we really need to open up how we are allowing people to engage in that and that is the whole purpose of Homespun - to show that the opportunity needs to widen.

"We, as filmmakers, have a real responsibility to do that.

"People are always saying 'you must make and watch Australian stories' and I completely, fundamentally agree with that, but also we need to ask ourselves 'what are we doing to make sure the Australian stories we are telling are totally representative of the Australian community?' and that includes regional and rural people who live outside on the fringe.

"It means we need to go there, we need to be willing to support those communities, willing to pay the money that is involved in housing crew in these areas and we need to make a greater effort to give the opportunity to rural people.

Director Socratis Otto on a break between filming.

Director Socratis Otto on a break between filming.

"It is not just important for their exposure but it is important for how regional people see themselves and their culture.

"We need to go further than what we have been doing.

"I look at Homespun as the first, I hope, of a lot more of this way of looking at the regions and inviting regional Australians to be involved.''

WANT TO KNOW MORE?

  • homespunseries.com.au
  • ruralroom.com
  • visiblefarmer.com
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