In 1995 faux-fur coats and matte lipstick were a big thing, Café Rumbarellas was on Brunswick Street and Australians still had a discernible accent. Writer and director, Emma Kate Croghan was 23 years old. A graduate of The School of Film and Television (VCA), she had cut her teeth on a couple of well-received shorts (Sexy Girls, Sexy Appliances and Desire, 1992) and a music video for 90s icons INXS (I’m Only Looking, 1993). Her debut feature film would shortly follow. Written in two weeks, and shot in just 17 days on a tiny budget Love and Other Catastrophes (1996) was an instant hit, and it remains a classic. The breezy campus comedy catapulted the resourceful and talented young director from dole cheques onto the international festival circuit, scored itself a healthy distribution deal with Fox Searchlight and went into theatrical release across four continents.
Love and Other Catastrophes is a madcap day-in-the-life of five Melbourne uni-students as they battle bureaucracy and broken hearts, pin-balling their way through the high-minded waffle that’s the preserve of undergrads the world over. With ironic self-awareness and sweet sincerity Croghan shepherds their neuroses through the hijinks to a cosy, satisfying conclusion. Hinged on the proven formula of the 1940s screwball comedies that Croghan was “obsessively” watching at the time, her efforts put a modern, and distinctly Australian spin on the style while securing global appeal. Love and Other Catastrophes is warm and wacky, clever and scrappy. It made Roger Ebert “long for the second one”. The New York Times called Croghan a “wunderkind”.
In the following few years the little-movie-that-could was nominated for 5 AFI’s. It launched the careers of Frances O’Connor and Radha Mitchell, who have both gone on to international acclaim. It screened at Sundance, Toronto, Venice and Cannes where the director found herself taking a tour of the Riviera in Harvey Weinstein’s limousine. Decades ago when that factoid was printed, mentions of such encounters hinted at little more than a career gal’s good fortune, at what catching the eye of a powerful man might mean for her prospects. In the wake of recent scandals of course that kind of glossing induces duly portentous pauses. Croghan says simply, she “has nothing more to add to the conversation (surrounding Weinstein) that hasn’t already been said” – It’s a response that might be taken in a number of ways. That conversations about a woman’s work or creative pursuits shouldn’t be habitually interrupted by the antics and crimes of other industry figures ought to be one of those ways.
What does predominate in discussions about Croghan’s work, her writing in particular, is a relaxed reassurance that it is happening, and it always has been. As she puts it, her “life has been very full, just not full of publicity”. Good humoured and with the warm, no-nonsense air of a woman who has nothing to prove Croghan navigated our conversation with a generous, graceful self-assuredness and a natural equilibrium, funny and firm. Love and Other Catastrophes is now the same age as Croghan was when she made it and questions about her hiatus from the directorial chair seem to answer themselves when set against that timescape. Especially when considering what Croghan has been up to: she’s become a mother twice over and raised a family, she’s literally sailed around the world (yes, in an actual boat), become a devout yogi and never stopped working in film. She currently has five projects in development and one on the brink of production. I spoke with Emma-Kate from the place she now calls home, a small estate in Frenchtown, New Jersey, to revisit the film that changed her life.
It’s been a long time since Love and Catastrophes came out. You did a lot of publicity at the time but since then I found a smattering of articles from over the years that were all wondering what happened, and why we haven’t seen more from you since that. Have you spoken much about the film in recent years?
I think I did one (interview) and then I decided that wasn’t a healthy way to approach life, I mean I have seriously been back in Australia, and even here in The States more than once, and had people ask me “didn’t you used to be Emma Kate Croghan?” And I am still Emma Kate Croghan, so I just didn’t want to see myself through that perspective. I mean I have been living a very incredibly full life; I just haven’t been doing publicity. And so that is sort of a weird way, existentially, to approach your life so I just say to people that I’m still me, I’m still the same person, I’m still doing stuff, I’m just not doing publicity. And then also there was a weird thing when my daughter got old enough to google me she found that someone had written a huge Wikipedia page and in it they said “she fell off the face of the earth” or “she got married and fell off the face of the earth” and she found that upsetting, because what I was doing was mothering her.
But you didn’t drop off the face of the earth of course, and you’re still working in film?
What happened, I mean lots of things happened but what I’ve been doing in the last little while is writing more and that has sort of become the concentration and the kids are older now and I’m certainly trying to direct again, just it’s hard, getting a film up is hard, it isn’t getting any easier (the industry), it’s getting harder. So there’s still a lot of writing. I often joke with people that I’ve spent 10 years writing films that haven’t got made, but I’m still a writer.
That must be difficult, investing so much time on things that don’t get off the ground?
I mean, the writing part is fine, artistically it’s fine. It’s just hard that you don’t get to share it and I don’t get to do the other part, or practice the other part of my art (directing).
So let’s talk a little about the film Love and Other Catastrophes: why did you decide to make an on-campus comedy?
I was a graduate, and I’d been obsessively watching screwball comedies from the 1940s and then there was stuff in the air about universities and students, strangely enough because of scandals that had happened at Melbourne Uni and Helen Garner had released the book The First Stone, which is completely unrelated but there was just stuff in the air about university life, and being a recent graduate it was in the air for me. Then the idea of a romantic comedy, and a sort of screwball comedy is that it occurs in a privileged world, a bubble, where you have time to be in love and for that to be your whole focus and so we thought what is a similar experience? And university is, you know everything is intense when you’re that age, you have time to spend your life really worrying about your romantic entanglements, so it seemed to transpose well. And so it made sense to set it there and it (university life) was something we knew.
Speaking about that freedom and intensity of uni life you captured, I wondered myself while re-watching the film what it would be like to make an ‘on-campus’ movie these days– and I think it might be really boring. The university experience seems much more transactional today, there seems to be less hanging out, people are busy and in and out. In that way, do feel like you perhaps captured a ‘moment in time’ that no longer exists?
Probably, but I mean I’m looking at universities with my daughter now which is a completely different experience and I think some things change, but I don’t know how much that matters. You set things in a world and I’m sure we captured a time and a time period, but those universal things like being young, trying to work out who you are and who you wanna be in love with and how you navigate that. I’m sure those things haven’t gone away. Right, so those larger themes probably haven’t but we did set it in our specific experience and I’m sure that that has changed.
I watched Love and Other Catastrophes for the first time in my teens when the world it portrayed seemed like a conceivable version of my future, but by the time I arrived there, things had already changed too much. It just wasn’t the same.
That’s always a mistake. I mean the whole reason I wanted to and did move to New York was predicated on Desperately Seeking Susan (Susan Seidelman, 1985) and Something Wild (Jonathan Demme, 1986) and you know New York is fantastic and it was amazing when I moved there but that wasn’t there anymore. So you know, those of us who chart our lives on the basis of films, I mean it always sends us in the right direction, but it’s never going to be the same experience.
So, technology played a huge part in changing the landscape of the types of experiences depicted in Love and Other Catastrophes. Lots of the plot would be inconceivable now, because none of it could or would happen with the tech we use today. Do you think it’s easier then, in a way, to write scripts that pre-date technology?
No, because life changes, and people change with it. We took a formula of films that were set in the 1940s and set them in the ‘90s and people can and will find ways to make that (formula) work and it will be interesting for any period in time. I don’t think any one time is easier or more difficult to write about. You have to do two things right? You have to reflect the time that you’re in and keep it modern while underneath that you’re trying to tell a familiar story. I mean I think that idea (you proposed) it’s a bit too overly “arrrwww, things were so much easier in my day.” I’m not one for that, I like change, change is good. Change it up, keep it fresh. That’s what we were trying to do, we weren’t nostalgically thinking it would have been easier to make a movie about say the ‘70s.
We do tend to see nostalgia a lot in film though. Say 20 or so years after a given period it seems to get revisited a lot in cinema?
Yeah but that’s just a way for people to process things, I can’t get with the idea that any time is more interesting or easy than another – I like it all. I’m a very YES, AND person, like yes, do the modern thing, yes go back and look at other times and process them from a distance, that’s interesting. So is contemporary stuff. It can all be good.
Less artistically and more logistically, how do you believe making a budget film 25 years ago compares to today?
It just would be different. I think that would be more about distribution. So people are doing the same thing, but what they’re doing is in some ways easier. It cost us relatively more to do what we were doing, but then the upside was distribution, being able to actually sell it and have it appear in theatres and having it go to festivals. That was available; the actual producing side of something like that would be cheaper now, but you distribution options would be different. You might do more online, that old path is less available, but there’s a different path.
In terms of that, do you still pay attention to what’s going on in Australian cinema? Or Independent cinema?
I work with Australian producers and have written things for Australian producers, but not so much the underground.
You mentioned you’ve been looking at universities for your daughter, she is probably old enough to watch the film and relate by now?
Well she tried, but she didn’t watch it all the way through.
Well maybe when she’s in college it might be more relevant to her?
Well maybe, but she’s into other things and I think you just want your mum to be your mum right?
What about other young people in Australia or The States, how do you think or hope they might receive the film today?
I would be totally guessing. But it is available on Netflix here (US) and people are watching it. And they’re commenting, but you know I don’t think they’re young people – and might be watching it in a nostalgic way. So I don’t think I can predict what young people now might think of it.
Were there any scenes on Love and Other Catastrophes that were ruled out just because of budget?
We were very conscientious; we had no money, so I never had any dreams of any grand crane shot or anything that went unrealised. It was written and conceived to be shot as the low budget movie that it was. The car stuff was hard, you know it might have been nicer just from a safety perspective to have more money to use like a car rig. But it was you know, the process was really part of the aesthetic and we were conscious of building that into the story and having them informing each other. It was made very fast, and the film was very fast and we were smart enough at the time to realise that if you can embrace what you have and make that work you’re gonna be better off. And it will actually add to the flavour of the film rather than trying to make something set in space with ten cents. And you know if anybody’s doing this I would highly recommend that if you’re doing low budget, try and make it an asset rather than fighting against it.
When you released Love and Other Catastrophes you were 23 and you’re quite obviously a woman and people just could not get over that at the time. How relevant do think that attention regarding your gender was then, and how relevant is it now?
Looking back is hard, I mean at the time you’re so sort of swept up in this thing and I think I tried to play it down, like it’s not that big of a thing. OK it’s surprising to people because it’s unusual but it shouldn’t be. But not really fighting the attention, when you’re in something it’s hard, but now with perspective there was a huge element of like “Look! A monkey typed a novel!” Which is so incredibly condescending and now looking back is just horrendous and sort of ridiculous. You know I’d been to film school, this is what I had been trained to do and trying to do my whole life. And there was this notion that it has somehow just happened by accident that was preposterous. I don’t know what it’s like for a twenty-something today, I think probably you get a bit of the same thing still, unfortunately. I don’t think it’s progressed much. I sort of tried to ignore it and play it down at the time, whereas now I maybe would talk more forcefully about that. And you know maybe push back against some of the fetishisation of that. There was a lot of emphasis put on the way I looked, which is completely bizarre for a director, but it was what is was.
It is theoretically bizarre, and I think that more impressive is the age you were, but if a 23 year old woman made a film today that was as successful as Love and Other Catastrophes was then I doubt she would escape that same kind of, as you say ‘fetishisation’. Perhaps it would be a bit less obvious, but not much.
I think my way of coping with that was just to push it away, but I hope if it happened the same way to a young woman now she might be able to say “I shouldn’t be the only one!” and don’t try and put me in a baby-doll outfit.
That focus on appearance is something most women endure, but in the context of being young and gorgeous and operating within an industry heavily dominated by men, was that something that got to you? Did it become a cross-to-bear to a point where you were dissuaded from really actively pursuing directorial opportunities in Hollywood or elsewhere?
It’s such noise and it’s then hard to know what is your own stuff and what is coming from the outside. I don’t think it ever stopped me getting out there and trying to do stuff but I suspect I took on a lot of responsibility for things – like I’m not getting opportunities because I’m not pushing hard enough, and in retrospect perhaps I feel like if I had have been a guy those opportunities might have been there. But you know that’s so hard to say, I don’t know that. It’s really hard to say what opportunities I missed just because of things I wouldn’t do, or I chose to let pass and which ones weren’t offered to me purely because I have a vagina.
Beyond what opportunities you did or didn’t get, did it affect your willingness to participate in the industry as a whole; did you find the attention to your looks overwhelming?
It wasn’t overwhelming but over time it became more and more annoying. You become more aware of it, but it wasn’t something I found overwhelming, but I did avoid it in the end. I never consciously decided to stop going to LA. I just started to avoid the endless meetings, because they’re actually about nothing and I actually think they’re pretty awful for everybody. But they’re more awful for women, because they ask stupid questions that really have nothing to do with why you’re actually there. I mean you shouldn’t be asked certain things – you shouldn’t be asked about childcare, or your appearance for a start. Unfortunately that isn’t particular to the film industry.
Do you have plans to come back to Australia?
I did an adaptation of The Household Guide to Dying, a novel by Deborah Adelaide. The film is set in Australia, but I’m not sure, depending on how everything works out, I’m not sure where it will film. I’m attached to direct and we’re trying to cast.
When was the last time you watched Love and Other Catastrophes?
Oh, I haven’t watched it in ages, maybe little snippets, but not the whole thing. You watch it like a million times (while you’re making it) and then it becomes weird to sort of go back and watch your work.
So even without seeing it through again, how do you feel about it?
Oh, I feel, it’s like a younger version of myself; a film is a very personal thing, it feels very personal. So I think now at this age I feel about the film, like I feel about my 23-year-old self. You know, I wish I could go back and give it some advice! But I feel incredibly warm to who that film is, and its faults and all that gives it its personality. That was who it was in that moment, its imperfections are what are endearing. And I mean, it changed my life. And what I’m proud of is that, even though I haven’t seen it in a long time I feel like the underlying storytelling still holds up, and that’s what made it. It was low budget and a little messy and made in a hurry but the underlying story was strong and it was a good story told well.