Off Topic: Susan Mitchell

The passion of author and academic Dr Susan Mitchell – whose latest book Margaret & Gough was published just a few days after Gough Whitlam died – is film. The Adjunct Professor of Creative Writing at Flinders University’s love of the cinema began at Croydon Odeon’s Saturday matinees when she was a child.

Off Topic and on the record as South Australian identities talk about whatever they want… except their day job. The passion of author and academic Dr Susan Mitchell – whose latest book Margaret & Gough was published just a few days after Gough Whitlam died – is film. The Adjunct Professor of Creative Writing at Flinders University’s love of the cinema began at Croydon Odeon’s Saturday matinees when she was a child.

“There was the usual feature, usually a cowboy film, and some sort of ongoing serial and another feature of some kind,” Mitchell says.

“My parents used to take me to films when I was quite little, because I was an only child, and you can take one kid. I probably went to a lot of M- and R-rated films where I didn’t even know what was going on.

“As an only child, film, like books, is another world that you go into, so you have a very vivid imagination about it all. I’d come home with the boy who lived across the road and we’d reenact Tarzan or whatever. I just adored them.”

In another life, the author of Tall Poppies, Tony Abbott: A Man’s Man and Kerryn & Jackie says she’d be a filmmaker.

“There was nowhere you could study it in South Australia, and it wasn’t until, to bring my book into it, Gough Whitlam opened a film and television school, in 73 or about then, that there was anywhere you could study. In another era I would have wanted to make films because it’s the most exciting genre around. I believe that if Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be making films. He’d probably be in Hollywood. He left his wife and family and went to London, was an actor, wrote plays and became the best dramatist ever – 400 years later we’re still doing them. I think film is the art form of the 20th and 21st centuries; I’d include television now, because they are doing brilliant things on television as well.

“I did my Masters in drama and film at Flinders, film with Noel Purdon, who’s just brilliant, and then friends of mine went to film school. I sort of acted in some of their films and got into it. But it would have meant… at that time I was a lecturer at university, so it would have meant giving up everything and going back to being a student again. I thought, ‘Oh god, I’ve got tenure and I really like teaching as well’. In another life I would have liked to make films; I think it would be magic.”

After 12 years in Sydney pursuing her writing career, Mitchell moved back to Adelaide and bought an apartment next door to Palace Cinemas.

“I’ve always wanted to live next to the flicks. So now that’s my living room basically.”

Mitchell is on the board of the South Australian Film Corporation and she’s pleased an industry is developing here.

“We’ve got FilmLab where we bring them through and we don’t just throw them to the wolves. We nurture them and support them and get them the best training we can.”

Though she believes Australian film has room for improvement, there are local films that Mitchell believes are terrific.

52 Tuesdays was a really good film. It investigated new areas and it was absolutely believable. It’s just very hard to get box office. Somewhere along the line we have to have a consistent group of films that break though. A lot of people are resistant. The Babadook was a good film but no box office.”

Mitchell believes all it would take to kickstart the Australian film industry is money.

“We don’t have enough philanthropists. Gina Rinehart or Packer, they could totally revitalise the film industry if they just threw a few billion that way. Overnight you could recharge it. In a way that’s the tragedy of it.”

What does Mitchell watch at home?

“I’ve got a million videos, well not a million, but a lot. Every year I have to play Withnail & I. If I’m ever feeling a bit down I just put that on and just laugh and laugh. I still think that Richard E Grant’s soliloquy from Hamlet is just the best of anybody. Forget your Olivier, he [Grant] was just standing in the rain, pissed out of his brain, his friend’s just got a fabulous acting job and he’s got nothing – wonderful. I’ve got all of [Robert] Altman’s, all of Woody Allen’s.”

Mitchell says rewatching a favourite film is the same as pulling from the shelf a book that you love.

“People say things like, ‘Why would I want to see that, I’ve already seen it?’ As if you only have to see a film once. Hello, why do we study literature? ‘Oh, we’ve read that book, we don’t want to have to look at it again.’ Why do you go back and see Hamlet 15 times? ‘Oh no, I saw it once in the 1950s, I don’t need to see it again.’ Crazy. Films are exactly the same. You’re never bored when you’ve got your favourite films.”

Margaret & Gough (Hachette) is out now

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