Atrophy: from Play to Film

Bronte McHenry interviews Gowrie Varma

Atrophy was originally a site-specific play developed by ANU students Gowrie Varma and Ellie Greenwood, in which the audience navigated six different spaces exploring the stories and mental illness of Greek and Roman characters of classic myths and legends. Bronte McHenry interviews Varma on the response to the play and the process of adapting the play into a short film.

What inspired the transformation of ‘Atrophy’ from the raved about ANU play of 2015, into a film?

Honestly, I have Liv (Olivia Love, my co-director on the film) to thank for that! Liv and Athena Chambers made the short that accompanied one of the monologues in the site-specific work. When she came to see the show as a whole, she found the material as inspiring and moving as Ellie Greenwood and I did when writing it. She started bugging me incessantly after the end of the run and I finally agreed to talk about it (when I recovered from the show). The second she sent me a first draft of the screenplay adaptation I was sold.

How did you approach the undertaking?

It was a huge task! The way it is structured, as a non-linear series of vignettes or monologues, means we were really creating five short films in one. Our first thought was the creative team. We contacted some very talented young Canberra artists, many of whom were women (who are desperately underrepresented in the industry) to get them on board. When you’ve put this much time into a project you’re determined for to do it justice, and for that you need help! The second step was for Liv and I to set up our production company, Myrmidon Productions as a framework to organise funding and boring (but important) things like insurance; and then of course the adaptation. We spent about four weeks working around the clock to transform the characters and the meaning from stage to screen.

What notable support have you had to help you tackle the film’s production?

Every single person involved in the project was invaluable. Not only did they all have the most incredible vision but further the best possible attitude on set. Shooting is tough and very intense, especially when you’re doing the whole thing in four days with everyone on set together! Our Art Director, Katie Tong, is a florist by trade and ANU Alumni. Her capacity to bring our vision to life was astonishing. Further, the camera department – Luis Power, our Director of Photography, also ANU Alumni, was supportive in delivering on our concepts. I also must mention Ellie here, as her help in editing the screenplay and actor training kept us on task and refocused us on story and meaning before the shoot.

What are you thoughts about the state of arts in Canberra currently?

I am not an expert, by any means, so I speak to this on my own experience. Over the last five years, I’ve felt truly supported by the Canberra arts scene. Opportunities exist here to explore and create that don’t exist anywhere else. In a bigger city, it is far more difficult to carve out your own style and audience simply because there’s more people and more competition. Having said that, recently I have been getting the feeling that the key phrase “supporting local artists” has been bastardised by festivals and events around Canberra attempting to “be more like Sydney or be more like Melbourne”. That’s not to say that good stuff doesn’t still exist here, we just need to stay grounded and commit to supporting local art not just in catchphrases, but also in practice.

How did you fund the film’s production?

Funding the film was difficult, especially since we only had eight weeks for pre-production. We are so grateful to everyone who supported us, particularly the individuals who made donations to our crowdfunding campaign. Our greatest avenues for funding were the bodies at ANU who were willing to organise a premiere with us in return for supporting the project. Keep your eyes peeled for details coming soon; the PARSA Women’s Department, the National University Theatre Society and the ANUSA College of Arts and Social Sciences Representatives have all come on board to support the project and a free screening is set for term two. We are also inviting some incredible women in the theatre/film industry to join us for a panel discussion.

What was the reasoning behind cutting the male parts from the original script when creating the film?

The decision was not to cut male parts, rather to focus on the female stories. Alex Hoskison, who appeared as Creon in the stage production, took on the role of Haemon in the film. Although Haemon tells us the story in this scene, the story itself is Antigone’s. The focus of the original stage show was, at the risk of sounding a little wanky, the human psyche and how we try to understand our emotional responses to trauma. For the film, we simply took that one step further and chose to focus on the experiences of the women. Why? Because, in the originals, women were not encouraged to share their stories, so effectively we attempt to give those women some authorial power over their own lives in the film.

How have you collaborated with the two different co-directors you have worked with each in each medium?

Ellie and I devised, designed and directed the original stage production and Liv and I adapted, produced and directed the film. Both Ellie and Olivia are truly marvellous, talented women. They also happen to be very good friends of mine. What I have found is vital in this process, when you’re sharing creative space under the most trying physical and emotional circumstances in production, is trust. I’d trust both women with my first-born! We share a love for the material and a respect for the craft. That doesn’t mean we agree all the time, in fact often we disagree but the most inspiring moments of collaboration come from that conflict.