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Three Chords and the Truth’s Claire Pasvolsky: The Director as Maestra

Rhoyce Nova talks to Australian Directors Guild Best Director Nominee, Claire Pasvolsky about her raw and rebellious debut feature film.

Jackie Marshall stars as "Angie" in Three Chords and the Truth.

We all know the notion of the “maestro” as the conductor par excellence, yet we rarely hear the feminine derivation, “maestra”. Whilst both gendered terms denote a teacher or “master of the arts”, curiously, the lesser-used, feminised, variant means more in Italian parlance. When used humorously, the word "maestra" has come to signify an “overbearing single mother”. Derived from the idea of the mother as the boss of the household, the jocular meaning of maestra, whilst playful, is minimised. When we consider that many film directors are regarded as maestros, what does this infer about female film directors?

Claire Pasvolsky, director of the independent music-driven drama, Three Chords and the Truth, is outspoken about the struggle to gain a “seat at the table” within the film industry. Now nominated for an Australian Directors Guild Award for Best Direction in a Feature Film, Pasvolsky feels both acknowledged and thankful. Yet the path to her feature film premiere was not without sacrifice. Fittingly for a “maestra”, the indie-flick filmmaker passed up her kitchen remodel for the honour. Dissatisfied by the state of their creative careers, the director and her husband and creative partner, Academy Award-nominated director and producer, Steve Pasvolsky, put their renovation reserves into funding their own film.

Three Chords and the Truth director, Claire Pasvolsky.

In recounting the genesis of the concept for Three Chords, Pasvolsky says it started in a decidedly “maestra-esque” domain, discussing ideas over coffee. “Every year I was getting a little bit down… towards the end of the year, going, another year’s gone by, and I haven’t made the feature.” That’s when her counterpart came up with a storyline about a young boy who is taken in by a kind older man after escaping a terrible situation at home. Pasvolsky responded by saying, “I think that's a great idea, but let's make it about a young girl because I'm not that interested in watching another movie about a man and a young boy,” adding, “But she’s taken in by an older woman… and Jackie Marshall has to play that woman.” Pasvolsky’s partner, having also worked with Marshall, loved the idea but warned her not to say anything so they could plan the project. Pasvolsky messaged Marshall that same day in early October 2020 and, within the month, Marshall was at the Pasvolsky’s house rehearsing.

Claire Pasvolsky's husband and creative partner, Academy Award-nominated director and producer, Steve Pasvolsky.

Jackie Marshall, a once-famous, jazz-trained, genre-defying musical artist plays “Angie Cowper” in Three Chords and the Truth. Marshall’s Angie is a kind-hearted, alcoholic singer-songwriter who is battling her third bout of cancer. The disease has spread to her bones and Angie has been told she only has months to live. In the words of her character, “It feels different this time.” Down on her luck, Angie plays seedy bars to finance one last album before her time runs out. Marshall herself is a cancer survivor, having undergone a mastectomy prior to filming. In an act of raw authenticity, Marshall bares both her breast prosthesis and her real scar in the film, the latter in the soul-searingly intimate bathtub scene. Filmed in the Pasvolsky’s home bathroom, it is a shoot that requires the utmost sensitivity and trust and one that is borderline unimaginable on a big-budget set full of gofers, gaffers, and grips. It is in scenarios such as this where Pasvolsky’s assets as a director soar. Like a virtuosa conductor, she melds the intuitive empathy of her acting and theatre-directing background with her “get the camera in and get the shot” documentarian savvy, to deliver scenes of unrivalled vulnerability and authenticity.

Like "Angie", lead actress and muso, Jackie Marshall, is a cancer survivor.

Fittingly, Pasvolsky met Marshall when working on her documentary, Big Sky Girls, about veteran musicians mentoring young, aspiring female artists from regional and remote Australia. The themes around mentorship and the redemptive power of music that drive Big Sky Girls dominate Three Chords and the Truth. The storyline follows the character of Angie as she intercedes in the life of “Ruby”, a young runaway girl in crisis, played with exquisite nuance by Maisie Owens in her feature film debut. With a simple act of kindness - leaving her car doors unlocked with a blanket and a sandwich – Angie saves Ruby from a harrowing existence sleeping rough on the streets. When the pair come face-to-face, music forges a mode of connection between two people who cannot find the words to express their pain outright.

Maisie Owens plays teenage runaway, "Ruby", in Three Chords and the Truth.

The chemistry between the two leads is palpable. Not one wrong chord does their connection strike. Not one beat does their interaction miss. The harmony between the duo is all the more noteworthy given that Marshall, the seasoned muso, is a virtual newcomer to the world of acting. On the flip side, Owens, who is older than the character she plays, is an acting adept who happens to have a stellar singing voice. Remarkably, Leigh Ivin, who gives a resoundingly convincing performance playing Angie’s long-suffering sound guy, has never before acted. Viewers might think that this is no great stretch given that he is essentially portraying himself, however, any experienced director will tell you to “Never work with novices.” They have a tendency to freeze up in front of the camera, among other things, but Ivin’s performance just flows out of him like a warm, slightly cranky, babbling brook. Rounding out the cast is theatrical veteran, Timothy Blundell, who gives a star turn as Rodney, the gruff but gooey-hearted publican, and Matthew Heys, who delivers a sublimely restrained, yet thoroughly threatening, portrayal of Pasvolsky’s expertly drawn “troubled dad” character. The success of the ensemble is a testament to Pasvolsky’s powers of orchestration. Like a bricoleur of communication styles, the director zeros in on the actor’s particular mode of expression to foster their most unfiltered performance. As Pasvolsky describes, “Maisie and I would… talk excessively about character and mood and… we'd go into the back story,” but with Marshall the communication was more intuitive. “Jackie and I, because we're a bit on the woo-woo side, you know, we like our tarot cards and our singing bowls and all that stuff,” explains Pasvolsky, adding, “I could say to her, just move into the feeling. So, it was a different language.”

Three Chords and the Truth also features a startling cameo from Australian media meister, Richard Wilkins, who plays a small, but deftly handled, “omniscient voice of God” explicatory role. The narrative is further hammered home by a galaxy of stellar original tracks written and performed by Marshall. Pasvolsky, when discussing the decision to make a music-driven drama about the power of songs to connect, heal, and empower, told her husband, “It should be about music because music is what's going to change the trajectory.” When explaining the process of weaving the compositions into the narrative, Pasvolsky relays that it was an organic process that unfolded very fast. The director first chose standout titles from Marshall’s oeuvre and for the remainder of the tracks, she would simply suggest a mood they needed to convey. Referring to the final touching tune of the film, Pasvolsky told Jackie in typical indie-filmmaking prose, “We need you to write a song where you're apologizing, and it's a confessional, and we need to shoot it tomorrow.” Continuing, Pasvolsky relates, “So she went and bought herself a keyboard… and it took her like a couple of hours, maybe an hour, and she wrote the apology song.”

Richard Wilkins gives a stellar cameo in Three Chords and the Truth.

Pasvolsky, a self-confessed music junkie, expresses that sound is instrumental to her creative process. A gifted screenwriter, she reveals that, whilst writing, she repeatedly listens to the key tracks that inspire her projects. Pasvolsky’s history as a theatre director and stage actress also colours her vision. She says, whilst working on the feature, she was always thinking, “This could easily become a stage show… this could so easily be transported onto a stage.” In a similar fashion, the director’s background as a documentarian influences her artistic choices. Her preference for intimate, in-your-face, handheld camera work is redolent of a contemporary, seat-of-your-pants, doco-shooting style. In speaking of the work of long-time collaborator, cinematographer Bailey Watts, Pasvolsky says, “It's like the camera, the performer, are one in many ways,” adding, “I want people to think… if you walked into a scene and you weren't watching it from start to finish, you’d go, “Oh, this is real?”

The chemistry between Maisie Owens and Jackie Marshall is palpable.

Curiously, the directors’ work that influenced the young Pasvolsky the most is far removed from the sometimes-gritty aesthetic of her feature debut. She describes herself as a “weird kid”, who at 12 or 13 would listen to Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits and frequent art house screenings at the retro Regal Cinema in Newcastle. Pasvolsky remembers devouring poetic masterpieces such as Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, and Krzysztof Keselowski’s The Double Life of Véronique, the film which she says ignited her craving to become a filmmaker. Yet the lyrical European influence is evident in Pasvolsky’s picture in her choice of poignant symbolism. The opening image of the tuning fork, which Angie repeatedly puts to her heart, provides potent “true north” placemarks in the film, whilst the myriad of moments featuring watery imagery reminds us of the emotional redemption and rebirth of these characters. Counterposed against the gravitas of the subject matter and the seedy grittiness of the “Newcastle-at-night” setting, Pasvolsky’s poeticism lends a tender timbre to her resolutely rebellious feature debut.

Certainly, onlookers could be forgiven for thinking that Pasvolsky has accomplishment built into her DNA. As we speak, she is being mentored by the internationally lauded writer and director of The Dressmaker, Jocelyn Moorhouse, as part of Screenwork’s Director’s Pathway Program. The actress, writer, director, and producer also recently received her PhD in Screenwriting from the University of Newcastle where she was a sessional lecturer until taking a full-time position teaching Film in Sydney. These successes were achieved, one might add, while juggling three kids, a house sale and relocation to another city, and the small matter of shooting and promoting her first feature film. Yet Pasvolsky is far from unflappable. Recounting the film’s debut at the Brisbane International Film Festival, Pasvolsky says, “I was so physically sick before with stress going, ‘I'm going to be sick. What are people going to think?’”, adding that, “I was holding Maisie's hand… and she's just got tears and she's going, ‘Oh, my God, you know, like, it's real’.” Pasvolsky needn’t have worried. Not only did the audience laugh and tear up in all the right places, but viewers remained afterwards to express their gratitude at the film’s treatment of difficult subjects, such as cancer and the struggle of life as an artist.

Filmed on location in Newcastle, Three Chords and the Truth reeks of authenticity.

Now Pasvolsky has her Best Director nomination from the Australian Directors Guild. When asked about how she felt when she found out, Pasvolsky confesses, “I was having a really, really tough day and my friend Harriet McKern, who's an incredible director… sends me a text message… saying, ‘I was just seeing if you wanted to come to the awards, but I'm an idiot because… I didn’t know you were already nominated.’” Pasvolsky, who was unaware of the nod at the time, rang her to double check then called her husband who said, “I’m going to burst into tears.” For the film duo, it was a moment that made them forget all about the forgone kitchen renovations. “I'm really grateful,” says Pasvolsky, adding, “It means so much to me personally… for the film to be recognized and that it's juried… and they've selected it on that merit.”

Poised to go international with her next ventures, the director is not resting on her homegrown filmmaking laurels. She is currently working on a television series set in New York and is completing the screenplay for her next feature, the psychological thriller, Seek and Destroy. Described as “Thelma and Louise meets Black Swan, with music,” Pasvolsky says she originally conceived of the piece being set in Australia but reveals that, “I pitched it to Garth Davis, you know the Director of Lion, and he’s like, “Oh, this is an international film with stars.’” In response to such recognition, Pasvolsky says, “I think my attitude has always been I'm not going to sit at home and wait for the phone to ring. I'm going to just keep doing, and if someone tells me no, it just makes me… more determined,” adding, “So, I think after all this hard work and running the marathon for so long… now the work is speaking for itself.”

An academic, actress, producer, screenwriter, and ADG-nominated director,

Pasvolsky’s achievements read like that of the cinematic orchestrator extraordinaire, earning her the moniker of a “maestra”, in the most revered sense. Yet the director remains as down-to-earth and authentic as her lead actress's unadorned face. She didn’t wait for industry heavyweights to come knocking, instead, she put her money where her mouth is and won. For indie-flick “maestra”, Pasvolsky, one senses a new kitchen was a small price to pay for her seat at the Australian cinematic table.

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