In 1998 Craig Monahan wrote and directed The Interview, a taut thriller that set Hugo Weaving against Tony Barry in a convoluted game of psychological cat-and-mouse. For his follow-up, Monahan couldn't have chosen a more different story to tell than Sue Smith's script for Peaches.
Newcomer Emma Lung plays Steph, the fabled 'miracle baby' who survived the car accident that killed her parents and was raised by her late mother's best friend Jude (McKenzie). On her birthday Steph takes her place alongside Jude on the production line at the local peach cannery, watched closely by unpopular foreman Alan Taylor (Weaving). Later her grandfather secretly gives Steph her mother Jass' diary, and gradually Steph begins to discover a person she never knew before. Through her mother's words, Steph also learns a thing or two about Jude, as well, and what a joyful life she used to lead before she became the over-protective prisoner of caution she is today.
Steph is intrigued to also learn of Jude and Alan Taylor's past relationship, and wonders why nobody seems to have any fun any more. When Jude can't or won't give her the insights she needs, Steph turns her attention to Taylor, who by now has a wife and kids of his own and should know a lot better. The past is complicated, and sometimes a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing indeed.
After such critical acclaim for his debut feature, Craig Monahan says he never had to agonise over what to do next, as in 'how to make an even bigger success'. "I've got a slate of five or six films that I've worked on over the years – they're all in different states of development or array – and Peaches somehow seemed to be one that we realised could happen more readily than some of the others. Part of that was budget; part of that was desire and choice, so it was a bit of a mixed bag, I'd have to say."
One thing Peaches does have in common with The Interview is that both films force their audience to constantly re-evaluate how they feel about certain characters, the more they learn about them. "I don't think I could help myself," concedes Monahan, good naturedly. "I thought I was making a vastly different film, until finished it and I realised that the psychology's probably just as intense. Some of that's in the editing room, actually, as much as it's in the shoot or the script; how you hold on somebody, for a reaction, that can completely change what's been said – as opposed to either holding on them longer, or not going to them at all – you can actually change the possibility of what the words are meaning or not."
Monahan says that directing somebody else's script is harder, in a way, given that you can find yourself locking horns with someone else's creativity, although he adds that his working relationship with Sue Smith was mostly a peaceful one. "I'm very inclusive – Sue was always part of any decision to change the script, or consider changing the script – and in the editing we rewrote most of the voice-over in the film, because what tends to happen is once you've actually got pictures, the pictures may be doing what you wanted the words to do. So she became part of that process, without any doubt, because that's part of the storytelling."
More than anything else, when asked to explain his attraction to the project initially, the tall, softly spoken director says, "it was because it's a character driven piece – but rather than it being based around a single event or point in time, it's in a real context and that context is basically a permanent versus casual workplace; the single event is the relationship between Allan and Steph, and the time is the '80s and the present.
With The Interview it was like, 'did he do it or didn't he?', and much more single-minded in what it was about, but this is about many things, and what I like about it is there are different journeys for different people. I find men over 40 will go on Hugo's journey; women over 35 will go on Jackie's journey; younger people of course are gonna go with Steph. Everyone's gonna go with Steph, but there are many other journeys on the road in there, like the Jass character – a lot of women had a really good friend when they were young; maybe they didn't die, but they went their separate ways. That's a common thing that I'm finding. So it's more multi-layered, I suppose, in a character sense."
While he clearly has ideas of his own about how things should play out and look on the screen, Monahan also points out that part of the fascination for him is the process of discovery that takes place during the shoot itself. "It all changes when it comes out of their mouths, once you start rehearsing and blocking it out. It has a different life, you know, when you hear it. The content and the potential for character are what attract you, and then with the actors on board it changes again; and then wardrobe, make-up and hair change it again, and then the lighting changes it again; so what happens is that it becomes much more clearer to you what the important parts of the scene are; and usually you just come down hard on those and lose the peripheral."