VIFF 2019 Interview – TABOO director Olivia Altavilla

“TABOO follows the story of Sofia, a teenage girl questioning her faith as she uncovers the vile truth behind her church. After witnessing the local priest abuse his power, she attempts to convince her devout Catholic family to act. TABOO raises an uncomfortable question – How could so many cases of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church be swept under the rug for so long?” Director Olivia Altavilla on TABOO which screens at VIFF 2019! 

Congratulations on your film playing and welcome to VIFF! Is your first time here and are you planning to attend your screenings?

This is my first at VIFF, I’m so excited. I will be attending both the screenings at the festival with my sister/co-writer/co-producer, Claudia. 

So how did you get into this business? Talk to me a bit about how you got your start and what you have worked on in the past.

TABOO is my graduate film from the Victorian College of the Arts in Australia, so in many ways this feels like my start to the business. A lot of people say don’t go to film school but I adored VCA and believe they definitely helped kick start my career. This year is my first year out of University and I just directed another short called STALLING that was funded by The Future Creative’s Initiative. 

How did this project come together for you? Give me a rundown from the preparation, to shooting, to post-production to now!

TABOO was heavily inspired by my Dad’s childhood growing up in a Catholic community in Victoria during the 70’s. Raised Catholic myself, something I found strange from a young age was that my Dad avoided coming to mass as much as he could. He would sit in the car during our cousin’s sacraments and he almost never came to a school mass. 

The older I got the more I questioned my Dad and he eventually revealed why he didn’t like going. Growing up many of his classmates fell victim to sexual abuse at the hands of his local priest, Father Glennon. He saw first hand it derail their lives and watched in quiet disbelief as his community did nothing about it. 

A big part of my writing process was speaking to people who felt comfortable talking about their experiences. The more I spoke to people  the more the script evolved.

I also wanted to make sure my actors really understood the world of the film so I ran rehearsals that involved attending a Sunday mass and making homemade pasta.

Despite the darker themes in the script, the shoot was a lot of fun. The highlight would have to be one of the young actors kicking the football into the lake during an early take and having no back up. It was hilarious and moving to see the cast and crew band together to rescue the ball.

Prior to this short I had always edited my own films but this time I co-edited the film with an editor, Samuel Taylor. Having written and directed the film, sometimes I was placing meaning on moments that weren’t translating. Maybe it was subconsciously because I enjoyed that time on set or it felt important when I was writing it but Sam didn’t have the same attachment.  This was so valuable because there were scenes in the script that the film no longer needed and felt a lot stronger without. 

Now, almost a year after finishing it, I get to sit back and absorb other people’s responses to the film which is my favourite part. As a writing team my sister and I have started expanding the script into a feature which we hope to make in the near future.

What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you? 

My biggest drive when making a film is how connected I become to the story and it’s characters. But I do drink a lot of green tea to keep me calm and am constantly laughed at for my obsession with hot baths. 

What was your biggest challenge with this project, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?

In the beginning I was hesitant to make this film, it was such an important but still barely spoken about topic in my family.  After an overwhelming amount of support from my Dad, I decided it was important to make it, not just for my family but for others who have suffered in silence.

The moment that was the most rewarding for me was having my Dad and his siblings at the films first screening. For the first time that night they spoke about it – something they weren’t allowed to do whilst growing up. Dad was so grateful and that made it all worth it.

I’m about to get technical, but I would love to know about the visual design of the movie; what camera did you film with, your relationship to the director of photography and how the movie was photographed. 

We filmed on a Red Epic Helium with cooke lenses. As it was set in the 70’s, my Director of Photography Brendan Cherry and I wished we could have shot on film but instead we used black pro-mist filters to try and achieve a softer film-like look. To maintain the authenticity of the story we decided not to light our scenes too heavily, opting for natural light as much as possible. 

Another important element to the cinematography was the way we wanted to go about capturing the abuse. I was adamant from the beginning that to serve this story we did not need to see anything explicit. Personally I felt it would hurt more to have glimpses of what was going on and instead focus on Sofia’s reaction to what she was seeing. We discussed early on that we wanted any shots of implied sexual abuse to be obscure by shooting with low light into mirrors, through gaps in curtains and doorways. 

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Vancouver?

The most exciting part about showing Taboo in Vancouver is seeing how an audience outside of Australia respond to it. I know Canada like many countries have a similar history when it comes to sexual abuse within the Catholic Institution so I’m interested to see how it resonates.

After the film screens at Vancouver, where is the film going to show next? Theatrical, online, more festivals?

After VIFF, Taboo heads back home to Byron Bay Film Festival.

What would you say to someone who was being disruptive through a movie?

Unless you’re really busting for the bathroom, please try and watch it all. Every second is there for a reason.

We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or get into the industry somehow. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business?

I’m still very much learning but I guess the one thing that’s helped me a lot is giving everything a go and trying to never say no to an opportunity, no matter how big or small it might seem at the time.

And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?

That’s a tough question! One of the greatest films I have seen at a film festival recently is GIANT LITTLE ONES directed by Keith Behrman. It is such a refreshing film, I love how honestly it explores being a teenager.

For this and more movies playing at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival, point your browser to www.viff.org

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