The following is an excerpt from the official press kit for the late Mary Callaghan’s Tender Hooks (1989). Courtesy Ronin Films. DVDs available from Ronin Films (www.roninfilms.com.au), and for streaming or download from Vimeo-on-Demand: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/tenderhooks.

Tender Hooks is the first feature by Mary Callaghan, one of the most exciting new talents in film production in Australia. Her short film, Greetings from Wollongong (1982) won three major Australian film awards and was released theatrically around Australia. Its story of young unemployed people in a grim industrial landscape was described by Peter Kemp in Film News as “visually inventive”, bouncily paced, with refreshing humour.

Mary graduated from the Swinburne Film School1 in 1976 and made several experimental shorts. She worked with the Women’s Theatre Group, Film Australia and the ABC, before returning to her home town, Wollongong, to make Greetings.

Mary Callaghan interview

Greetings from Wollongong (Mary Callaghan, 1982)

How did you become involved in film…?

As a child I loved stories, delighting in graphic details, I would picture every instant. I was fascinated by words and their ability to recreate the mood and emotion of an event. I threw around words I could hardly pronounce, acting out my characters’ mannerisms and idiosyncrasies where my vocabulary failed me. Film was an inevitable choice for me because it offered me the potential of words and pictures to express my ideas. I have always been full of ideas, my head would burst if I didn’t get rid of some of them. Film gives you the opportunity to get rid of a whole lot at once…

I was introduced to filmmaking by an adventurous art teacher. I had designed a set of life-size bird costumes and having made them, photographed them, displayed them, admired them. It seemed a waste to lock them away forever in a cupboard. So we went down to Bombo Quarry (prior to Aunty Jack using the location) and with the patience of a lot of friends who jumped around the cliffs in these insane winged contraptions we made a film … which I submitted as my High School Certificate major work. It was my first and only fantasy-surreal film.

I remember being so emotionally involved in a film at the age of ten Dr Zhivago was able to induce weeks of morbid depression, I would have to keep repeating to myself “it is only a film”, it is not really happening. At the same time I was aware that there was a chance that horses were injured in stunts, I was worried all the way through Charge of the Light Brigade, worried about the poor horses, it was real enough for them. Lawrence of Arabia was the first film to inspire thoughts of direction in me. I realised that someone was responsible for making it all happen. I couldn’t imagine how someone could control that many people and keep the action together. I was worried about how I would do it, but I knew I wanted to make a film, I would just keep the horses to a minimum. I think I was about then when I can to that inspired decision.

Mary Callaghan interview

Greetings from Wollongong

You were born in Wollongong but you ended up going to Swinburne Film School…

It was the practise amongst peer groups to leave home the instant you left school, so I moved to Sydney and spent a year ringing up the names of people somehow connected with filmmaking to be given another name and another number to ring…I did this trying to retain my enthusiasm and optimism to dial the next digit until I learned of the existence of Australia’s one and only film school, Swinburne – the national film school2 was still on the drawing board. I was one of two girls in a group of fifteen accepted that year. It was there that I learnt the determination and perseverance which is essential to survival in the independent film industry. There was very little equipment at Swinburne and it was like a bargain basement rush to get hold of it. Often the ability to scrum and shove was interpreted as aptitude and talent. People failed politely waiting a turn at the Steenbeck. I successfully applied for an experimental film grant and was able to complete a short film Image Plus whilst I was a student there.3

Mary Callaghan interview

Image Plus (Mary Callaghan, 1975)

How did you find film school? Did you see it as a factory where you were taught technical skill, or did you try to go into film theory?

I learnt enough about the technical stuff to know the immensity of the information involved and just how little I knew. I decided the only way I could get the technique down was by making a film, getting a grounding in each of the disciplines involved. I knew that my ultimate goal was direction. In some ways I rejected conventions before I really understood them, challenging conventional narrative and deliberately breaking golden rules. But on some ways I think it was the right way for me. I understood the reason for some of the conventions of narrative more fully than if I had just stuck to old routines and never explored alternative devices. I think my particular style is more idiosyncratic because of my initial experiments with film language and, by eliminating conventional story telling techniques in my early films, I have developed the visual component of my film. I can’t separate the design from the action or the dialogue, they are totally integrated for me. I design and art direct at the same time as I write. If it was possible I would do my own art direction on my films.

What filmmakers were having [an] impact on you at the time?

One of my favourite films was Agnès Varda’s Lion’s Love. I loved Godard films in those days too. I was particularly impressed by an Argentinian filmmaker, Raymundo Gleyzer who made Traitors. He put his life on the line by making politically potent films that were action packed and dynamic. He was able to fuse adventurous content with adventurous technique to create intensely dramatic entertainment. He was imprisoned for his trouble.

Mary Callaghan interview

Lions Love (Agnès Varda, 1969)

How did Tender Hooks originate?

Tender Hooks is my attempt to foster understanding through entertainment. It looks at society from the outside…from the point of view of characters who don’t slot in and make the whole show messy. Like any sub-culture, Rex, Gaye and Yawn say as much about dominant culture as they do about themselves. Mitchell is on the fringe of the sub-culture. She is still evaluating, feeling her way. It is through her conflict and personal struggle that we encounter the other characters and plot the alternative courses open to her. Unlike the others, she has a conventional job in a hair salon. She has recently left home and taken a room in an inner city hostel where she is introduced to a range of characters and lifestyles that question every value and premise she has known in her home town, congenial existence. She falls for Rex before she is aware of the implications of that love, the uncertainty and ultimate danger that embodies his very person. Rex is someone who has never know[n] security of love and can only express himself through half-baked comic book platitudes and sentiments found in fortune cookies and bubble gum wrappers. Tender Hooks is a universal story…people striving to fit in somewhere, somehow, trying to locate themselves through common identity and purpose. Tender Hooks is the embodiment of that contradiction, humorous pathos, tragedy realised in humour, a range of emotions, fears, conflicts that are told through fast moving, idiosyncratic anecdotes. Whilst it is raw, it is gentle, tender, rough, kind and cruel – all the contradictions that fuse to make up human nature.

Mary Callaghan interview

Jo Kennedy and Nique Needles in Tender Hooks (Mary Callaghan, 1989)

You weren’t interested in making a film about prisoners and rehabilitation?

No, not in formal terms. Whilst Rex avoids taking command of his own life, making decisions, taking responsibility for his actions, he creates every prison he has known – he carries it with him. Whilst he accepts those restrictions on his own life he also imposes them on the people that care for him. I chose to look at prison and the prisoner through the point of view of the loved one. How Mitchell is imprisoned by her love for Rex and the conflict it induces in both their lives.

How did you become involved with Chris Oliver, the producer?

I had approached the Australian Film Commission with a treatment and was able to get money to take it to the first draft. Somehow Chris read the treatment and, liking it and my previous film Greetings from Wollongong, range me about working together. Chris and I had vaguely known each other at Swinburne but this was our first joint venture. Chris was re-evaluating his career after having worked on a low budget exploitation movie and felt he wanted more satisfaction for the effort involved. I was feeling similar in the sense that I had to ensure an audience for my work without compromising the content. Chris and I are like chalk and cheese in some ways, but we came together on this and it’s been a constructive working relationship.

Mary Callaghan interview

Greetings from Wollongong

This film is sort of a purge. “Movie playing in my head”…

I think the movie playing is a continuous loop, minus even intervals. At the same time Tender Hooks is the culmination of some difficult moments in my life, a way of transposing negative into positive. I watched too many people I cared about go down on self-destruct for want of some direction, love in their life. I must say some of them have had the most vibrant sense of humour that I’ve encountered if you’re open enough to catch the joke.

Interview transcribed by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas



  1. The Swinburne Film School is now known as Victorian College of the Arts.
  2. This became Sydney’s National Institute of Dramatic Arts.
  3. Image Plus (1975) is available to view online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4_JqTVNCwSc.