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JJ Barnes The Table Read

Written by JJ Barnes

I interviewed filmmakers Rachel Dunn and Michael Hole about their careers in film and their work as founders of Girl Director.

Tell me a bit about yourself.

Rachel – I was born in a country town in Mt Gambier, South Australia. I grew up with a loving and creative family who always encouraged me to go after what I wanted in life. I healed myself from Breast Cancer in 2020 and over the past year and changed everything about how I live, what I eat, think and do. I am fascinated by unusual stories, and I believe in magic. I feel so grateful to have found my life partner Michael of 18 years. We get to work on our magic life every day. We love inspiring others with what we create, how we live and who we teach. I have always been about 10 years ahead of the trends in my thinking, which can be a blessing. It can also take time for others to understand and be on board with my futurist mind.

Michael – I was born in Bristol, England and moved to Australia as a small child. I live with my wife-to-be, Rachel (we get married in March 2022) and our beautiful cat, Morrison. We live in a tropical paradise on 8 acres of rainforest in Queensland, Australia. We live off-the-grid in a big wooden treehouse where we run our global video marketing business called Girl Director. I am also a novelist, singer, songwriter and bass player, performing in my original rock band whenever we get the chance to do gigs.

Rachel Dunn, filmmaker interview on The Table Read
Rachel Dunn

As a child, I was always a dreamer. I always loved stories that explored life from different perspectives. I especially loved stories from other worlds where the rules and assumptions were different to those we have amongst humankind. One thing that always seemed strange to me was that almost all the science fiction films I saw were focused on bipedal, humanoid creatures. I figured that there must be other alien species out there, beings that don’t have mouths and legs and all the things Earth creatures have. That is what led me to making the film I am at work on now.

When did you first realise you wanted to make films?

Rachel: I dreamed of being the best music video director in the world when I was 15. I was one of the rare people who knew what I wanted to do at a young age and stuck to it. In a country town, back in the ’80s, there was no such thing as mentors or film school. I loved everything about this medium because it allowed me to be creative and experiment. They were short timelines, and I had a script and soundtrack ready to go. It was about bringing the music to life with the imagery.

Michael: As long as I can remember I’ve always loved movies. As a little kid, I was captivated by black and white classics like The Vikings and Samson and Delilah on TV. The first movies that made the biggest impacts on me were all epics that had a fantastical element to them. There was Picnic at Hanging Rock, James Bond’s The Spy Who Loved Me, and then I saw Star Wars on its release and my view of the world and my imagination were opened up and never the same again.

As I grew up and became an avid reader, I always saw the books I read as films playing out in my mind. When I first read Lord of the Rings, I was desperate to see it as a fully-fledged, real live action film. I figured if someone else didn’t make it, then one day, I would have to do it. Luckily Peter Jackson fulfilled my wish! But before that, I started getting my own ideas for films and when I discovered The Execlintians, I knew that would be my masterpiece.

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What is your favourite thing about films?

Rachel – I love films that expand my mind. I love to walk out of the cinema or finish watching a movie, and something in me changes. I think of some documentaries I have observed that changed my life.

Michael – Firstly I love being transported to another world or another persons’ life. But I also love to learn and have my mind opened to new ideas. That’s why I love historical dramas and speculative worlds so much. So, long as there’s a character I can relate to, then I’m hooked.

What classes or research did you take to support you in your filmmaking career?

Rachel – I took on a 12-month media training after I finished school; my goal was to get into the industry to learn on the job as soon as possible. It took me 3 months to get a job. All of my friends went to University, but I knew I wanted a career in the industry asap.

Michael – I watched thousands of films. I studied how they were edited, how the characters were developed, how they were shot and listened to how the music was used to build tension and shift energy. In the early 90’s I did a short film course and learned how to edit on video. Later I picked up Final Cut and started editing music videos for my bands. They were good early learning pieces, but what I really learned was the importance of timing and flow.

What was your first film industry job?

Rachel – My first job was as an animator on a children’s show called Mulligrubs in 1990. It was 3 months after I left school, and I had no idea how to use an Amiga 500 computer or draw. I threw myself into the deep end, which I often do. It makes you see what you are capable of and learn fast.

Michael – My first job was an Extra in a TV show called Young Lions. I had discovered a dead body that had fallen over a cliff. I did lots of extras work after that, including a regular role as a hospital orderly in Home & Away for a few years. I was even a hand model for one ad, haha! I did that part-time, but then I started working with Rachel in her video production business and became her crew – her lighting and sound guy, camera assistant and editor. Basically, I started learning all there was to know about shooting videos on a budget.

Michael Hole, filmmaker interview on The Table Read
Michael Hole

Tell me a favourite experience in your career. Something that stands out in your memories and makes you want to find more experiences like it.

Rachel – I love seeing an idea come from your mind and take form from the whole production process. Nothing makes me prouder than to be on set on location and take a moment to take a mental snapshot and reflect on how good it feels and how much I love seeing the idea take form.

Michael – I directed and produced a music video for Callum The Heavy Metal Kid. He was a 12-year-old heavy metal guitar prodigy who made it through to the grand finale of Australia’s Got Talent and ended up meeting Ozzie Osbourne and other heroes of his. I was asked to direct his first proper music video and it was so much fun working with Callum to get the most out of him. Remember, he was just a kid, and it was my job to get his meanness on screen. I’ve got to say, I was pretty happy with the result. He was very rock’n’roll.

What was your toughest experience in your filmmaking career?

Rachel – I experienced many tough lessons after working in TV for many years as a director and motion designer full time. I was made redundant at the end of 2004. It shook me more than I ever imagined. I didn’t expect or see it coming, so my whole ego and identity took a huge blow when it happened. I was lost, had no business sense, and didn’t know how to delegate because the budgets were low. My self-worth was very low, and I over-delivered for a tiny amount in return.

When I look back at the freelance jobs, I had, they were incredible in what I delivered, but I never felt they were good enough. I would work every hour there was. I tried having a business without knowing how to market myself, sell or do any critical business side. It was a harsh lesson and a blessing in disguise. This downward spiral continued to worsen until I had a breakdown and had to stop and think about what I wanted to do. There were some great lessons here. I see this happen with many creative people in the industry. You have to value yourself before anyone else will respect you. It is a vital lesson.

Michael – I’ve got to say, that apart from the long nights, tight deadlines, and sometimes looking at an edit and thinking “Oh no! Is this going to work?” it’s all been pretty great and the edits always work out, even if they take longer than expected.

An easy screen recording

What is the title of your current project?

Rachel – Through Elephant Eyes (Documentary) and Girl Director (Agency). In 2022, we are working with some big visionary clients to help them stand out in a huge way! I can’t wait because I haven’t seen this kind of imagery used in this space.

Michael – The Execlintians and I’m a producer, cameraman and editing supervisor on Rachel’s Through Elephant Eyes documentary.

What inspired you to make this film?

Rachel – When I had a meltdown, it was an excellent opportunity to stop and think about what was important to me in moving forward. I was tired of ego-driven ad agencies and the lack of integrity in the industry at that time. I wanted more meaning in the productions I was involved with. 

I started learning about animal communication (animal whispering). I have always loved all animals and always had a unique connection to the animal kingdom. When I first knew that there was such a thing called animal communication, I had tears in my eyes because it is something I had deeply always believed. 

Rachel Dunn and Michael Hole, filmmaker interview on The Table Read
Rachel Dunn and Michael Hole

I will never forget one particular day I had a shower. I was asking the question, “What will it take for an idea to come to me that would make a difference and use my skills?” I asked this question every day until this one day when an image of an elephant taking a selfie popped into my mind. 

It came out of nowhere, and I had never seen this image before anywhere. I started to think perhaps an elephant somewhere sent me a message and wanted to learn to communicate with a camera. So, I began to research and see if I could find such an image or information online. I found nothing. This idea was the first time something had lit a fire inside me I had to follow.

3 months later, I decided to see if I could find this elephant in the world that may have sent me the image with no map or idea where to go. It sounded crazy, but off I went. I packed my camera and documented it as I went. I decided to go to Thailand first because it was close to Australia. The first elephant I met was Peter. He had just finished filming a Samsung advert and took a selfie in the Ad. Now, what are the chances the ad wasn’t released yet? This moment was a sign I knew my doco was bigger than finding one elephant. It is to shift people’s awareness of how intelligent and connected elephants are. They are here to teach us too much if we learn to listen.

Michael – The Execlintians first came to me in a dream. I saw a world of intelligent plants that lived on Earth a hundred million years ago. I saw how they moved, how they lived, how they searched for tastier, more nutritious soils. Over time I discovered many different species and their struggles in a primeval landscape that was dominated by a vast sea of cloudy gas. As these visions came to me I wrote them down and made drawings of them. I found it easier to describe their story in a novel format, knowing all along that it would make a visually spellbinding and consequential film.

I have recently finished writing the novel. It is a 500 page, two-part epic – an origin story where all characters are Execlintians. i.e there are no human characters. We learn of this alien, yet familiar world through the eye of a young Miwinien Execlintian called Lusithlaad; from the moment of his birth to his unexpected loss in the giant sea of cloud called Qualia – an ominous place that borders their native forests.

This is a heroic saga that sits somewhere between Avatar, The Lord of the Rings, The Guardians of Ga’Hoole and Finding Nemo, though it is unique in its own right with its own rules of reality. There are many intriguing and strange creatures amongst the Execlintians, as well as many mind-expanding concepts, the imagery of which is potent.

The Execlintians is a highly visual story in a new genre I call Organic Science Fiction. Anyone who reads it is captivated by my visual writing style. Everyone who reads it can instantly see it in full colour, as a vibrant CGI animated film, with some mixed live-action elements. I have commissioned a games artist – Oliver Hatton – to create some beautiful images to illustrate some the characters and scenes from the film. These are totally captivating and set the tone for how the film will look.

It’s obvious that there are huge opportunities for merchandising and spin offs too, for this is a whole world that I have discovered, one that no one has ever really explored before. I have two sequels in mind already.

Siren Stories films

What is the main conflict of your film?

Rachel – Most people don’t believe they can communicate with animals on a telepathic level of communication. This was the case with elephant organisations, people I interviewed, and I battled my self-doubt through the film just because mainstream science hasn’t yet caught up. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Time and time again, I proved you can communicate on this level. 

Michael – The conflicts of this story are in parts obvious and in other allegorical. It is one of an innocent thrust into a dangerous, confusing world where fear is all around and the threats increase as more of the story unfolds. It is about life against the elements; a rapidly changing ecology driven by egos, experimentation and internal conflicts, where dark forces are meddling with the environment, not knowing the dangers they cause.

How long did you spend in production?

Rachel – From the first idea it has been 9 years. We finished filming in 2019 in Africa and have a few more scenes to finish.

Michael – The Execlintians – I have not started production yet. I am looking for funds and a studio to work with right now.

How long did you spend in post production?

Rachel – It will be a minimum of 3 months when we start. 

Michael – I’m not up to that stage.

Did you work with a writer, or write the film yourself? Would you do the same again?

Rachel – This documentary broke every film rule because I followed my instincts with the story. I knew it was an incredible story. I did hire a Hollywood storyteller to help me bridge the gap with the story. The story is so important to get right. I don’t know how I could do things differently. 

Michael – I am the writer and will work with another script writer to finish the screenplay adaptation.

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How did you find your cast and what made you choose them?

Rachel – The interviews were based on experience, scientific research and elephant places that would allow us to film. The elephants are the cast as much as the interviews. 

Michael – That will come later. I will be looking for great voice actors including big names. Some will be more Thespian/English accents like Ian McKellen and Alan Rickman, but most will be neutral accents so as not to imply the modern cultural disposition of humans.

How big was your crew? Would you choose the same size again?

Rachel – I had a very small crew. I like working with a small, committed team that is great at what they do. Attitude is everything, it is a massive tick for me if someone has a can-do attitude. I look for the best cinematographer or videographer I can find and I look for a producer who is happy to do other roles when they need to.  And of course, I look for a fast editor with experience, excellent communication, and a production assistant who can think one step ahead of me.

Michael – TBA. It will need to be a decent size including CGI specialists, designers, but also animatronics, motion capture specialists, Foley Artists and a highly creative music composer. My visual artist, Oliver, will continue to work with me on the images of the main characters and scenes.

How did you find your locations?

Rachel -They were based on the interviews I wanted to do and I was also limited to locations that had elephants.

Michael – TBA

Tell me some career goals. What would you like to achieve?

Rachel & Michael – Michael and I are visionaries and have huge goals. We dream big! We have opened Girl Director Agency to only work with top visionaries and entrepreneurs on a level I haven’t seen in this space. Many haven’t harnessed the true nature of how video can help them. We can’t wait to help more business owners inside our Girl Director academy. This is where business owners master video in their businesses. Both of us want to continue developing our documentary and film projects. Once we get the first of these under our belts, they will lead to more projects within each of their genres.

Tell me something you were surprised by, something you had never realised about being a filmmaker.

Rachel – I never expected to turn the camera around for me to be in front of the camera. I was terrified at first. After directing celebrities and rock stars, I never felt good enough. It changes everything when you share who you are in the world. I see many filmmakers hide behind the scenes. It is life-changing when you learn to communicate on camera. People want to see the owner of the business. Opportunities everywhere open up.

Michael – Every film, whether short or long goes through a stage when it doesn’t feel like it’s working. Rachel and I call it the “Oh shit!” stage! It’s that moment when we’re in the depths of an edit and we’re looking at what we’re cutting together and it’s just not looking or feeling like we’d envisaged at the start. Nowadays we know that’s good thing when we hit that point. Many years ago, we didn’t recognise it and we’d start to panic! The great thing is that once we realise we are there, then we know what to do. We stop editing for a bit. Take a day night off and come back to it in the morning. Now we start looking at it for what it is, not what our expectations were. We start working with what we have and create something beautiful from there. It has its own life and we are there to help it to be the best it can be. It’s a fun and more fulfilling way to look at the process and it works every time.


What are words of advice you have for other aspiring filmmakers?

Rachel – Develop a belief in yourself. Value yourself and hire the best. Only do work that inspires you! It took me a long time to understand what the concept meant. Go after what you want.

To develop belief in yourself, start writing out the character you want to play in your life. Just like an actor would for a role. Write every detail about how you feel, think and act. What kinds of jobs, parts do you want to play? What types of people do you want to be around? Carry this piece of paper around and read it as often as you can. You will feel a shift, and you will notice you will start to act and think like you have been reading.

Michael – Don’t put limits on your vision for what’s possible. Every legendary film began as an idea that was allowed to develop through possibility and a team of dedicated people. Don’t be afraid to explain what you see in detail. The more effectively you can relay your ideas to people, the more real it will become in their minds eye and the more likely it is to come into existence.

Give me your social links so people can come and find you!

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