HOUSEKEEPING FOR BEGINNERS

HOW GORAN STOLEVSKI FORGED HIS FOUND FAMILY

INTERVIEW
By Connor Dalton
17th February 2024

When Macedonian Australian filmmaker Goran Stolevski got his shot at features, he hit the ground running. After a long journey in the realm of shorts, he helmed two films in rapid-fire succession. His debut was 'You Won't Be Alone', a tale of a Macedonian witch who takes the form of her human victims. It was revered for its original depiction of the human experience and drew comparisons to Terrence Malick. Not long after, he delivered his sophomore, the Melbourne-set coming-of-age drama 'Of An Age'. It was equally regarded and the latter of a sharp one-two punch that secured a distribution partnership with Universal Pictures. Furthermore, it cemented the writer/director as one of the most exciting new voices to emerge from Australian cinema.

But the achievements haven't ended there. Stolevski has maintained his momentum with a third title called 'Housekeeping for Beginners'. The narrative follows Dita, a Skopje woman who lives with her girlfriend, her two daughters, and a diverse group of queer people she has granted accommodation. In the wake of tragedy, Dita is thrust into motherhood when she has to raise her girlfriend's children. It's a situation neither she nor the girls are happy about, but together with her home's other occupants, they begin to weather their new dynamic and responsibilities. The film is a stirring look at what a found family can be and a deft inspection of the sexual and ethnic tensions present in Macedonia - and like Stolevski's previous projects, it's a testament to his indelible craft.

Following its appearances at numerous festivals, the film will have its Sydney premiere at this year's Mardi Gras Film Festival as its closing night film. Ahead of that screening, I spoke with Stolevski about how a veteran Australian director inspired the plot, working with street castings, and his highlight of the Venice Film Festival. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

CONNOR DALTON: I want to start by saying your work ethic is incredible. We're talking about your third film in as many years!

GORAN STOLEVSKI: Yes, but it was 20 years of trying to make one film before that, so it accumulated. For me, it's three films across 22 years, which isn't that much, but I feel like I'm making things work (laughs).

DALTON: A few years back, I was at a screening of 'You Won't Be Alone' at the Sydney Film Festival. One of your producers, Kristina Ceyton, introduced the film, and I recall her saying that when you first got into business together, it was one of maybe eight projects you pitched to her.

STOLEVSKI: One of 10! But it wasn't that I was pitching them. I had written 10 feature scripts because it had been 18 years since I started making short films, and no one was interested in my work that whole time. So the only way to keep pushing through the rejection was to just keep generating new story worlds to lose myself in. And when Kristina approached me after I won Sundance with a short film, she asked, "Do you have any features?" I said, "Look, I have 10, but I don't know which one to pitch you." So I sent her a document with a paragraph summary of all 10 of them. And she's a co-producer on 'Housekeeping', so our relationship continues.

DALTON: Where did the idea of 'Housekeeping for Beginners' spring from?

STOLEVSKI: I saw a photo Tony Ayres, a veteran Aussie director, posted online of when he first moved to Melbourne in his 20s. It was the 1970s, and he moved into a house with his boyfriend and eight gay women. It was just one snapshot of a day in their life, and I thought that looked like a fun space in that context. It was like this cocoon in the middle of a place that probably wouldn't have been friendly to any of the people inside the household. I thought it was a good space to take myself into and then a viewer into, but I updated it to the present day and to a country that I think is more relevant to queer lives in the world today.

DALTON: The film is a beautiful portrait of a found family. Have you ever found yourself in a group like that in your life?

STOLEVSKI: No! (laughs) It's not autobiographical in any way, shape, or form. I've been very lucky that I had my biological family that I grew up with. It was very close, and we remain very close. But the dynamics inside the household, while it wasn't a conscious effort on my part, kind of reflected the house I grew up in, which was six people in a two-bedroom apartment, and that doesn't count the 47 cousins walking in and out every day. And there was this constant sense of people shouting but loving each other at the same time. It was safe to shout at one another because you knew you loved each other.

I think that's a type of life that reflects most people. Most people aren't rich kids in the city or inner west. Most families are living in crowded houses. And it's not about spreading awareness - I could not give a shit about spreading awareness - it's more just trying to capture aspects of everyday life that are relevant to as many people as possible. I feel very privileged now. I'm now a rich girl (cheekily smiles) and I have Universal releasing my movies. So I feel in a unique position where I have access to ways of life and the stories from people who don't usually make it into stories, and it was exciting to put that into a movie.

DALTON: Setting the film in Macedonia introduces some really fascinating themes around the country's racial tensions and the disparity of its living conditions. What made you want to incorporate these ideas into the story?

STOLEVSKI: I didn't really start off with an ideology or a notion of what ideas I wanted to present, to be honest. In an intellectual sense, I write from instinct. It usually comes from a feeling. In this case, it was a space, and I wanted to fill that space with a bunch of interesting people that would kind of come together through everyday life in Macedonia, which, like most places in the world, has a bunch of different tribes from within its general society that interact. I never really stopped to think about ethnic tensions or whatever I wanted to bring into it. I just knew that the town I grew up in was 85% Albanian, and I didn't really see that reflected in Macedonian language films, whereas it was a very key part of my reality.

'HOUSEKEEPING FOR BEGINNERS' TRAILER

In primary school - I still remember the numbers - there were 36 kids in the class, and nine of them were Roma. I didn't see these lives reflected, and it wasn't like, "Oh, that has to be my mission," but you write based on the lives that shaped you. So it felt very normal to have a mix to reflect what day-to-day life would feel like. But ultimately, the story isn't about ethnic tension or anything. It's about your family and love and motherhood and how even when you're trying to run away from this concept of living in a traditional family, there are needs that are unconscious and shape you in a certain way where you start behaving like a traditional family even when you're making this effort not to.

DALTON: There's something rather transfixing in how the film explores the purposes of marriage. Different characters use it or view it as a means to serve different goals. Dita uses it to protect the children, while Vanesa views it as a tool for escape. Is that something you meant to convey, or is that just my reading?

STOLEVSKI: It's the correct reading, for sure. A lot of my films tend to be my brain split between two people. In this case, my brain is split between Dita and Vanesa. I don't know what that tells you about me, but I felt like, in that situation, that's what a marriage would mean to me because they don't live in a place where building a relationship of love tends to be sanctioned by the state. So it's like, "Alright, this is what I'm given, these are the numbers I got in this lottery, so what do I do with them? What's the best they can do?" Ultimately, any place where marriage is meant to mean something, the reality of it is very different.

DALTON: In my research, I read that your two lead actors learned all their lines phonetically. Could you tell me about that process?

STOLEVSKI: Oh my god! Anamaria Marinca, who plays Dita, was also in my first film, so she's learnt a few languages phonetically. I owe her my first and second born for what she's done for me (laughs). It was very stressful for those two women, Anamaria and Alina Serban. We had to lock in their dialogue well in advance, and it's always tricky to lock in a script too severely because circumstances change, facilities change, and usually, you have to adapt to what's in front of you rather than pursuing something set in stone. So I try to avoid setting things in stone, but in this case, I was like, "I have to cast the two best actresses," and circumstances meant I wasn't able to cast anyone from Macedonia and rely on that.

But wonderfully, I was able to cast two of the best actresses in the world. That's reflected in the fact that we never had to do another take for dialogue. Anamaria and Alina have two different languages they speak in the film, neither native to them, and they learned all those reams of dialogue phonetically. Once we got on set, it all flowed very smoothly. We finished a day early and had a two-day wrap party. It was a lovely shoot. It was very stressful to put together, but once we were on set, that sense of found family happened on and off screen. We're all still very close, actually; we message quite often.

DALTON: I also read that most of the supporting actors were street castings. Does that create a different dynamic with the director when you're working with first-timers?

STOLEVSKI: Oh, completely. It is a different way of working, but I wouldn't say it's harder or easier. I also think different actors who are professional and experienced and trained have different methods, and me directing is kind of a misnomer. You don't tell someone what to do; it's more about nurturing and creating an environment where they can flow into the feelings that the story needs. Telling someone what to do never works. You create the space, try to look at the person in front of you, and usually, there's an essence to their personality that you can't write or think of.

In my case, I tried to connect it with the character. I'm much more interested in bringing the character closer to the actor than vice versa if I find the actor interesting or charismatic. And trust me, they're all more interesting than anything I could ever write. And what's great was Alina, Anamaria, and Vladimir [Tintor], who plays Toni, were veterans and very experienced in making films in multiple countries. They adjusted to this and were my fellow nurturers on set. And Sara [Klimoska] as well, who plays one of the smaller roles in this film but was the lead in my first film. I was very grateful to her for taking a supporting role and also helping with creating this space that didn't work according to me saying action and then they say the lines.

It was much more spontaneous in terms of the atmosphere on set. So when our new actress had to deliver a line of dialogue, it was something they kind of thought of right in the moment rather than something that they had to say at the right time on the right mark. And what happened was, in return, you get this naturalism and sense of reality and magnetism on screen that you can't rehearse or audition for, in my opinion. I hate putting actors through auditions, so I avoid it. For this film, there were no traditional auditions: it was just an introduction to camera and speaking about yourself. Also, one of the main actors is a five-year-old. You try directing a five-year-old! She doesn't take directions; she gives directions. You're lucky to have her in the room and do things on her terms, or nothing gets done at all (laughs).

DALTON: Finally, regarding your cast, I believe I spotted a tiny cameo from yourself in the form of a selfie on Vanesa's phone. Was that your cinematic debut?

STOLEVSKI: I end up in my films quite often, usually out of necessity, never out of planning. I was in 'Of An Age' very briefly because we couldn't organise an extra of the right height, and at one point, I was like, "Give me a backpack! I'll play a toxic man at the airport." For this, it was not meant to be me in the sexting photos delivered to the character, but there was a misunderstanding. The scripts were not appropriate for many reasons (laughs), and I was like, "I have an idea!" I messaged my husband and my best friend and said, "Do you know some of the photos I've sent you over the years? Can you quickly send them to me right now? I have an emergency." And then I was in the movie (laughs).

DALTON: You are still relatively early into your career but have already received some tremendous honours. 'Housekeeping' was Macedonia's selection for the Best International Feature Oscar, and a few years prior, 'You Won't Be Alone' was Australia's submission. As a man of both nations, it must have felt incredible that they selected your works to push for such a significant accolade.

STOLEVSKI: I like anything that makes more people hear about my work and watch these films. Look, it's not bad (laughs). I learned about movies and cinema history in general through knowing about the Oscars at a young age. That sense of tradition and history and preserving what was seen as important in a particular year is lovely. But no, I can't say I was that invested, to be honest. At Venice, honestly, the highlight was meeting the people who [awarded the film with the Queer Lion] because you see them speak about your work so passionately, and these aren't my parents or husband or cousins. These are people I've never met in my life that connected with a story that's so far away from them.

Actually, the award wasn't the highlight at Venice. The highlight was after the premiere on the way out of the theatre. There were a few people who were waiting to meet me because they loved 'You Won't Be Alone'. They were a bunch of Italian people who did not know each other. One of them, Angelica, started crying and said, "I came all the way here because I love 'You Won't Be Alone' so much," then I started crying, and then everyone around us started crying. I don't care about an award compared to meeting another Angelica.

DALTON: Congratulations on another beautiful work, and the only film I've seen that involves the term "Horse Exorcist".

STOLEVSKI: (laughs) Thanks, Connor. I like that you pick up all the important details. That's one of my favourite things, so thank you.

'Housekeeping for Beginners' will have its Sydney premiere at the Queer Screen's 31st Mardi Gras Film Festival on the 29th of February. The film will then be released in cinemas nationwide on the 9th of May.

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