Leah Purcell: The Legend of Molly Johnson (2022)
Photo courtesy of Modern Films

Director Leah Purcell on Reimagining ‘The Legend of Molly Johnson’

Indigenous Australian writer, director, and actress Leah Purcell talks about reimagining Henry Lawson’s short story and inserting her family history into The Legend of Molly Johnson.

The Legend of Molly Johnson
Leah Purcell
Modern | Samuel Goldwyn
13 May 2022 (UK) | 19 August 2022 (US)

Australian indigenous director, writer, and actress Leah Purcell continues her journey adapting Henry Lawson’s classic short story The Drover’s Wife (1892), first for the stage, then as a novel, and now as the feature film, The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson (2021).

Lawson is considered to be one of Australia’s foremost short story writers. A product of his time, he wrote from an unmistakable male perspective. Despite writing about Australian colonial history, the indigenous population was marginalised in his work and described using negative stereotypes. 

In her directorial feature debut, Purcell reimagines Lawson’s short story, astutely studying the society of the time to present an authenticity, and in her own words, brings to the source material, “her indigenous family’s stories to give it that indigenous woman’s perspective of the time.”   

It’s 1893 in the small outpost town of Everton. On the isolated outskirts, a heavily pregnant Molly Johnson (Leah Purcell) is looking after the homestead while her husband is droving sheep. She despatches the children to the care of a guardian while she readies herself for birth. When she’s disturbed by an indigenous fugitive in shackles named Yadaka (Rob Collins), who’s accused of murder, the encounter reveals truths the fair-skinned Molly has denied about her identity. 

Meanwhile, Everton’s new lawman, Sergeant Nate Klintoff (Sam Reid), is accompanied by his progressive wife Louisa (Jessica De Gouw), who publishes a paper introducing temperance ideology to the developing town. When he learns Molly’s husband is missing, he’s conflicted in his sympathy for her, as she may have been the victim of his drunken violence, but equally, he suspects she’s guilty of a crime. 

The crisscrossing of these lives will culminate in a tragedy as Molly fights for her children and Yakada his freedom, while Nate struggles with the conflict between the community’s need for law or morality. A slow burn drama, the director patiently lets the story unfold. It moves at a pace that subverts the expectations of the genre, forgoing established conventions.

This is not to suggest that Purcell’s reimagining of Australian history is detached from the genre, it has a presence wherein it’s focused on the journey as much as the destination. With a deft touch, Purcell refrains from emotionally exploiting moments, instead moving the story forward. She engagingly presents The Legend of Molly Johnson‘s themes and ideas, allowing space for the audience to enter the film and interrogate it for themselves.  

In conversation with PopMatters, Purcell discusses her connection to Lawson’s short story, using art to shift indigenous issues from the political lens and her desire to create understanding and change through debate. 

To begin, what are the roots of your interest in storytelling and performance?

I come from a family of performers. There would always be someone with a guitar singing. My mother would sing, and she had a trick of tap dancing with bottle tops on her toes. I had two uncles and aunts that could deliver a punch line. You’d wake up so sore the next morning you thought you’d done ten rounds with Mike Tyson, but that was from laughing. 

I grew up in what was probably the last generation before phones, and the electronic reigns came in. I’d sit at my family’s feet at barbecues and listen to those cultural stories. My mum’s indigenous, and my dad’s white, but he didn’t have much to do with my upbringing, so I grew up around my mother’s aboriginal family. They were the storytellers and the story-keepers. I’d look forward to those nights. 

There’d be family get-togethers with 20 cousins around my age. We’d put on productions, and I’d come up with the ideas and direct them. I never trained for anything. Through high school, they had a three-month short course for music theatre. At the end, we’d put on the high school musical, four performances at the Murgon town hall. 

I always had a passion for performing. I did one training course when I moved to Brisbane. It was more acting for the camera, otherwise, it was on-the-job training. I’d sit and observe, and that’s where I got my passion. I got it from my elders, my mother being one of them, and growing up around those family get-togethers.  

How would you describe your relationship to the Henry Lawson short story?

When I was five years old, my mum would read it and recite it. She had a book of Henry Lawson’s short stories. In regards to America, Henry Lawson would be the equivalent to your Mark Twain. He’s considered one of our greatest short story writers. He was a poet, and The Drover’s Wife is a classic in Australia.

Unfortunately, my mum passed away before I could ask her, “Why Henry Lawson? Why that book? Why did you like that story?” As a five-year-old, when I first heard the story, I used my imagination to put my mother and myself in that scenario because it was similar to our life. My dad wasn’t around, so I was that little boy in the story. I was my mother’s protector, and she was my mother and father, the woman and the man of the house. 

We lived on the outskirts of Murgon, a small country town. We had a combustion stove and a wood heap. My mother could swing an axe and she taught me to cut logs into chips and to stack a wood heap. She told me, “Don’t stack it holler, or the snakes will get in under.” These words reverberated around in my little mind. They’re part of the story of my real life, and I connected with them.

The book travelled with me when my mum passed away when I was 18. It’s the one thing I took from the house, and at that stage in my life, I wasn’t thinking I would make a film one day. I knew [The Drover’s Wife] was close to me; I knew I was connected to that story. 

It probably represents that subconscious connection to my mother. At that time, I was 18, and I’d not long had my daughter. She was one month old when my mother passed away. I was leaving a violent relationship, and I was worried about how far a full tank of petrol would get me. I just kept that book with me for 42 years.

[One day] I was a director in a writers workshop, and I said, “Instead of taking my frustrations out on the writers, maybe it’s time for me to write my next project.” I pulled that little book off the shelf, set it beside me, and away I went. 

It’s interesting how long you internalised your connection to The Drover’s Wife before expressing it.

The first incarnation of The Drover’s Wife was a play in 2016. We launched it at the Belvoir St Theatre in Sydney, one of the prestigious theatre companies. It was a small season, but we sold out and received standing ovations. I went on to write the film as I was performing. I was workshopping with my audience. I’d run down in the night, and we’d talk about my performance, and they’d ask, “What happens next?” 

I leave the play open-ended for conversation. Writing the film, I could go to Everton and show them what happened next. At the same time, I was writing the novel, so we had all this amazing background research on all the characters I could give to my actors. I gave them their chapters and said, “I’ll see you on set.”

If I had my producer’s hat on, I knew I’d have an already made Henry Lawson audience, so it was already a bit of a trojan horse where people might have thought they were coming to see the literal interpretation, and then I did a reimagining. “Reimagining” is a word we throw around in Australia. I implied or applied my indigenous heritage – my family’s story. 

The character of Yadaka (Rob Collins) is based on my great grandfather. There were things in him that I saw in Molly’s strength and determination. The hardships I saw in my mother and grandmother. My mum was a Drover in her young days – she drove with her father, an aboriginal Drover. 

A photo of his mother only surfaced recently – a 15-year-old aboriginal woman from Winton sitting on a horse, and they called her a Drover. My mother had great horsewomen sisters, so it was in my blood. I believe it was a gift from my mother because it poured from me while writing the script, the play, and the novel. 

We’re about to embark on the limited premium TV series. It’s set in 2020, and we go back to the past to find out what has happened to the children. It’s an all-new story, and one of the conditions in the writers’ room was that whenever we got too close to the film, we weren’t trying hard enough. 

This story comes out of every pore of my body because I’d done the novel, and I was already thinking about where it could go. There will be an opera – it’ll be like a Porky and Bess (George Gershwin, 1935) sounding piece. 

Having reimagined the source material, what are your feelings about Lawson’s perspective on the indigenous population? How do you compare your vision to his?

I understand where Henry Lawson was coming from; he was writing for his time. It was a man’s world, and he never spoke much about the indigenous population in his stories. If he did, they were the stereotypical “bad black” or “lazy black”. This is what they were called. I wanted to put myself in the Drover Wife’s shoes and get her perspective. 

He [Lawson] didn’t give her a name. I gave Molly a name because it was my thinking that at this time [now], she deserved a name. I also understood that in those times, it was better for a woman to be a Mrs Joe Johnson, to be somebody’s wife, because it gave you status and protection when you were home alone in the isolation of the bush where she was. I also wanted to give her a name so that she could share it when she felt comfortable enough. In a moment with Yadaka, she gives her Christian name. I didn’t reimagine it out of disrespect. I was still working on the parameters but found why she might not have used her name. 

Lawson did write about our colonial history, but it was from the male perspective. Being an indigenous woman, that’s where I used my grandfather’s diary to look at how they were writing about society. I also looked at Louisa Lawson’s writing. Henry’s mother was a writer and the proprietor of a newspaper – she published his first poetry. 

[In The Legend of Molly Johnson] the issues Louisa Klintoff writes about in her journal, The Dawn – which is the same name as Louisa Lawson’s [feminist] paper [published 1888-1905] – are the same issues Louisa Lawson wrote about. When the suffragette movement came to Australia she [Lawson] was in advance of it, writing about wives and temperance. I studied the society [the late 1800s] to make the film as authentic as I could, the good and the bad. I applied what I learned to Molly’s world, but then added my indigenous family’s stories to give the film the indigenous woman’s perspective of the time.

The Legend of Molly Johnson moves at its own pace, and you don’t always conform to the stereotypes and conventions of the genre. 

There are always creative debates around the notes you get back from people. I stood strong in some of my choices, where certain people thought I needed to weigh in on a moment more. I said, “No, I disagree. Those women in those times didn’t have time to wallow in self-pity – they had to move on. They had to protect and provide.” I stuck to my guns and beliefs on that, and it’s for the betterment of the film. 

The Legend of Molly Johnson has its own pace, and I allowed it to be the film it needed. I didn’t bring my script out until the last week of editing to check something. You’re watching through a very small monitor when you’re on set. We shot it in five weeks and four days. […] We moved quickly. I wanted to sit with the footage and see, on the big screen and the televisions in the editing room, what hidden gems we had to massage the film to where it needed to go. 

I cut 12 scenes. The Legend of Molly Johnson starts in scene 11. I worked hard to massage that story. I wanted to stimulate my audience emotionally and intellectually with the undercurrent of indigenous issues without hitting them over the head. I did enough for indigenous issues to be noted but then fell back into the drama and let that carry us visually. 

There’s a conflict to control the narrative between the indigenous population and white Australia. You’re expressing your history, culture, and traditions. However, it’s driven by an adversarial agenda to whitewash and deny the truth.

We’re throwing those words of truth-telling around in Australia. We [indigenous people] are still not considered in the constitution, or the law. One of the big things about confronting Australia’s horrific past is so we can move forward with its acknowledgment. As a filmmaker and art maker, whether it’s theatre, television, or film, it’s about sitting my work in truth. 

I want to get it right because you’re only as good as your last work, and I want it to be based on truth. The Legend of Molly Johnson gives that truth a strong foundation, and I can speak passionately about it. I know where it has come from, and it will find its way to where it has to go or where I need to go. That was the one thing I kept returning to if we got lost or someone gave me a note I didn’t agree with. I came back to the truth the story was sitting in.

This is my family’s truth. I can’t afford to get this wrong and not stand up for it. As indigenous storytellers, we are on the wave, and through the different mediums, we’re responsible for that truth-telling.

Is art a threat because it’s difficult to control once it’s shared? Is art’s power that it can expand representation and bring about change through conversation?

Art is very powerful. That’s one of the reasons I do the work I’m doing. It’s about bringing about an understanding, especially with the indigenous issues that are always seen through the political lens. I believe if you can find a universal story – and [The Legend of Molly Johnson] is about a mother’s love – if you pepper it with diversity, or in this case, the indigenous story, it’s an opportunity to share stories where the audience will think, ‘I can relate to that. It’s through an indigenous woman’s lens, but I get that.’ It brings about an understanding.

We’re not going to be able to change some people’s thoughts on those issues. Things aren’t going to change overnight. But I’d say to my producers and distributors that I hope The Legend of Molly Johnson creates debate. 

Some of the storylines I deliberately left open to make people ask, “I wonder who did that? Did he really do that?” If the audience has those discussions and you’re bringing about debate, I believe the story allows for understanding. 

When I tell people The Legend of Molly Johnson is based on my family’s story, I say, “You can’t deny me that story because then I don’t exist.” This is based on my truth, but it’s up to you how you want to view it, how you want to move it forward, and how you want to understand it. 

Art is a beautiful way to look at some of these issues. By making sure there’s good drama, and it’s commercial, and people can connect to it on the universal level, I believe that’s when you have a film that can make small steps towards a bigger change, it will come later. 

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