How filmmaker Alexandra Billington makes it matter
How do you give it mouth?
Ha ha – anyone who knows me well knows I have a mouth on me – I believe in speaking out, loudly, for those who don’t have a voice, for those being overlooked, ignored or those not considered important by society. I’m the one behind the underdog and cheering on the former failure and I like being around similarly minded (and mouthed) people. And yes, all of these things inspire my creativity and work.
Why did you decide to start Belle Films?
I wanted a small boutique independent film company where I could focus on writing and developing a very small slate of films, just two or three, that would allow me to keep a level of creative control and work with people I enjoy being around – and so far so good. Actually re the feel good factor, I named Belle Films after my little dog – I don’t think a day goes by when she doesn’t make me laugh and I wanted to take that good energy into my professional life.
I’ve always travelled, at first with my family (I lived in Tanzania as a child), then I left home very young, sixteen, and travelled everywhere from Greece to Iran, from Tibet to Ireland. I was always hungry to experience new sights and smells and tastes which are emotional landmarks in our lives, each is its own story.
I have a kaleidoscope of abstract memories, from being a toddler doing handstands in a garden in France and seeing the world upside down, being in Africa by the open window of an old train, watching the flat landscape fly by at sunset and smelling maize crops being burned, to driving through the Pakistan desert with Talking Heads Road to Nowhere blasting out over the desert sand dunes – just surreal moments, internal landscapes that shape and lead to stories, because I believe everything in this life is intricately connected.
If we always do the same things, day in, day out, our character stagnates. To me, travel unlocks and unleashes a little magic and new and fresh feelings, thoughts and perspectives – and creativity needs this fuel for its fire.
What did you learn about creative collaborations from your time working in television?
Television is a highly collaborative medium, but not always in a good way. I worked for a lot of big channels from Channel 7 and 10 in Australia, to MTV, Paramount, Sci-Fi, the Movie Channel, Showtime etc … and individual creativity is very somewhat reigned in and based around briefs, audiences, key marketing – basically keeping the status quo.
I enjoyed working in TV, met some amazing people, learned how to navigate and handle difficult people and in doing so probably became better at navigating life.
As a film director, you must often have to negotiate people’s moods and personalities?
Yeah and I’m really hypersensitive to people’s energy and moods – good or bad. I can tolerate a lot as long as people are bringing something valuable to the creative table and as long as there’s kindness and respect – those latter two traits are, to me, non-negotiable, no matter how powerful or famous a person is.
I’ve always believed that those who are truly talented and confident in that talent don’t resort to the ego level, they’re at peace with who they are and are usually a pleasure to be around. It’s the insecure people in film, or any creative field, that are the dangerous ones and they can make collaborations a challenge. My philosophy is simple – treat people as you wish to be treated and surround yourself with people who are the same.
Do you have any stories about times when you’ve had to do this and what the result was?
The last few years I’ve been working with wonderful people who are like-minded souls focused on the creative endgame, not least my lovely producing partner Lesley Matali who is a powerhouse of intuition and good business sense – a rare combination. But a few years ago I made a couple of bad choices re some of the people I was working with – they were completely the wrong personalities for me and my project and I learned a tough but invaluable lesson about the importance of carefully choosing the people you work with. The minute I sense someone is rude or egotistical or just generally bad mannered, I’m out. Life’s too short and I’ve survived enough bad times to want my films to be a positive experience for all involved. It’s also about respecting people’s time, from actors down to production runners. Everyone matters.
I love great talent, but I need that combined with the aforementioned kindness and humility – a killer combination in any creative team or even personal relationship.
What are the central thematic preoccupations of your films?
I like characters who are antiheroes, people are out of step with the world around them who don’t fit in some way. They might be lost or disconnected or lonely – but I always build stories around these characters that take us not just into their world, so there is deep empathy and understanding of who that character is, but on their journey into light and life again.
All of my characters are finding ways to reconnect with their heart again, and learning to breathe again. Though I’m drawn to darker stories and themes, I’m equally drawn to hope and to light in the end.
Tell me about the moment you found out your film Geography of the Heart would be shown at Cannes?
It was all pretty straight forward; producer Lesley Matali had entered the film into Cannes and a few weeks later we were notified we were in.
We’d love to have a feature in competition one day soon, but for now was great to get some coverage in Cannes for Geography of the Heart. The film was a real labour of love for a lot of good people in cities from New York to Berlin to London to Sydney and Perth, an international collaboration, so we were really happy it got such positive exposure at one of the world’s biggest film festivals.
An anti-hero (or heroine). A wound that will never heal but one that the hero (or heroine) learns to master or accept. A problem that is seemingly unsurmountable, and the desire to survive the problem, even if it’s from within. Faith – always. And hope. Every compelling story needs a glimmer of hope, because light will always win over dark in the end.
Why is it important to write about love?
Love is everything.
It’s the most important thing we have of real and timeless value.
It’s all that matters in this fleeting and challenging life.
It can drive us on to great acts of heroism or change, and helps us transform our own lives and the lives of others for the better. Can money do that? Not even close.
I once wrote that the heart is an alchemist and it is – love can transform the worst existence imaginable into gold – and this is a daily miracle we all have access to the moment we choose. That is real power.
Can stories change the world?
Of course they can.
Look at the films that have educated people to make change and have faith in themselves, whether it’s a film about Martin Luther King Jr’s life or about someone who survives against all odds.
Only two things, heartfelt stories and love, make us to want to live another day in dark times. It’s the only reason I wanted to write or make films because I made a lot more money as a TV producer. If you can get an uplifting story out there, a genuine story that resonates truth, the positive energy it can create is life affirming and life changing.
Why else are we here if not to change our little corner of the world? And if enough of us are changing our own piece of the world then an army of us can light up the world and drive out the darkness.
With inspiring stories in our hearts, we become warriors of light – and we really can do anything.
See more of Alexandra’s work here.